P1 Tech Help: How metadata can kill you

Metadata within a digital image can contain date, time, and location of where the photo was taken, which can be dangerous depending on the circumstances, the location, the person in the photo, as well as who is capturing the image

I recently wrote about the pros and cons of social networks. This month I would like to inform you about inserting photos you may take with your smartphone (or GPS-enabled digital camera) on your social networking page.

As we all know, digital photos are bits of electronic data that are translated with computer software to create the image you see on the computer screen. We now have the technology to take digital photos from not only cameras but from many types of cellular telephones and smartphones.

Dumb Uses for Smartphones
Smartphones have the capability to be instantly online to the internet, depending on how much you want to pay for your plan. Smartphones (BlackBerry, Apple iPhone, Motorola Droid and many others) have computer-like capabilities such as sending and receive email messages and many more PC type capabilities through the use of “apps” or a Windows based smartphone operating system.

I recently read a very interesting PowerPoint Presentation written by the U.S. Army Office of The Chief of Public Affairs, Pentagon cautions members uploading photos on their social networks sites because the photos taken with smartphones or GPS enabled digital cameras taken while out on the field with smartphones or GPS enabled digital cameras may divulge their location and may jeopardize “operational security.”

As police officers, we have a type of operational security to be concerned with too. Many of us live near our agency we work in and face bad guys who can recognize faces too.

Data Within Data
The article described that digital photos have “metadata.” Simply put, metadata is data within data. In other words, metadata within a digital image can contain date, time, and location of where the photo was taken, which can be dangerous depending on the circumstances, the location, the person in the photo, as well as who is capturing the image.

For example, Adam Savage of Mythbusters used his smartphone to take a photo of his vehicle in front of his residence and posted it to a Twitter account. The photo contained metadata that gave the exact time, location of his residence, and the vehicle he drives to work every day. As you can see metadata can have detrimental results depending on how the photo was taken and where you post it.

I mentioned the U.S. Army article to a friend of mine who has a smartphone. He showed me photos of his son sent him via smartphone and used his smartphone to map those photos on a phone app that showed how many photos were taken in a particular location and the times the photos were taken.

Put to Good Use
Now, flip this on its head. Metadata can also be used during investigations to help map suspect residences, locations of suspect vehicles, and suspect sightings. You can take a photo and later map it to use the information to gather investigative information. Check with your agency policy before using this investigative technique.

Our society cherishes our individual privacy but some of us using social networks post everything from where we ate lunch to photos of family member’s at home. It is these practices and information that can be used against LEOs.

Just a word of caution to those posting photos to social networks like; Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and myriad others, be mindful if you choose to post photos. Read the device manual and be sure the GPS capabilities on the device can be — and properly are — disabled.

Stay safe.

About the author

John Rivera is a Patrol Officer with the Bremerton Police Department. John’s career BPD started as a Volunteer Reserve Officer and while he volunteered his time as a reserve officer he work as Police Officer at Naval Base Kitsap. He was hired full time in 2006 and attended the Washington State Police Academy. While at the academy, John was selected as the class “Techy” to help with the technologically deficient class instructors. Before John’s law enforcement career, he gained his computer experience through earning a degree in Computer Programming and then working in the computer industry as a Network Administrator and Systems Engineer for several companies.

Contact John Rivera

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