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    Press Release
  • Geotags: Cover Your Tracks to Prevent Unwanted Transmission of Location Information

    July 3, 2012, #12-11

    GPS applications, which are becoming increasingly popular on smartphones, offer increased opportunities for others to use your personal information for unwanted marketing or other nefarious purposes. Attorney General Bob Cooper is cautioning Tennesseans to be aware: you may be giving away more information than you intend when you use certain functions or applications on your smartphone.

    Many new cell phones and almost all smartphones can "geotag" or capture private information such as the longitude and latitude of where your photos and videos were taken or your current location. This information may be accurate to within 15 feet of where the photo or video was taken. Though the information will not visibly appear to the casual viewer with the image, it is available and can potentially be read by a computer. A phone can also report its user's location to any of several different apps, which in turn may sell the information to third parties.

    Location awareness can, of course, have beneficial uses. Geotagging can give you directions to a nearby restaurant, offer you discounts at the coffee shop as you're walking past, or tell you if any of your close friends are nearby.

    "Many people do not realize the amount of private information they are making public by simply uploading a photo or video to the Internet or downloading an app to their phone," Attorney General Cooper said. "We just want consumers to be aware of the risks of geotagging."

    "Consumers should always be cautious when disclosing any personal information," said Consumer Affairs Director Gary Cordell. "Although uploading pictures and other information may seem relatively routine, some may take that information and use it to harm you or your family. Always think twice before making any private information available for anyone to see."

    Popular Internet sites may host geotagged images online, and there are tools available online by which other people may perform location-based searches. The default settings for geotags vary among phones, social media sites, or other Internet sites. With some, a geotag is the default setting. With others, this is not the case. You should check the default settings on both your phone and the Internet sites you visit before you upload photos and videos.

    The existence of geotagged photos and videos on the Internet carries with it important privacy and security concerns, as shown by the following scenarios:

    • A woman's photo on a dating site might contain geotagged information that could reveal her home or work address to a stalker.

    • A home movie of a child's birthday party posted to a video sharing site may reveal location information to a child predator.

    • A man updating his status with a picture might unintentionally reveal that he is not at home. Past uploaded photos taken at his house would reveal the house's location, thus making him an easy theft target.

    • A woman wanting to sell an item on an online Internet classified directory might take a picture of the laptop at her house and upload it to the site. Though the sale offer is otherwise anonymous, anyone on the Internet could discover the geographic coordinates of the photo, making the owner susceptible to burglary.

    • A family on vacation might use a video sharing site to upload a video taken at the beach. A programming script designed to notice when users are suddenly hundreds of miles away from their normal location would reveal to burglars that the family was not at home and would likely not be home for a while.

    Many popular apps track where users go throughout the day and sell that information to third parties. Major publications have reported that many popular apps sell location information to third parties. For a list of apps that may track you, visit http://blogs.wsj.com/wtk-mobile.

    While many reputable companies take steps to ensure that geotag information is put to legitimate uses, you should take steps to ensure that you are only posting the amount of information that you actually want to post.

    Users wishing to stop their phones from geotagging or sharing their location with apps should find the option to turn off location tracking in the phone's settings. Instructions on how to do this have been posted online by third parties, which may prove helpful to some consumers. (Note: The State of Tennessee cannot make any endorsements about third party software or warranties about what effect, if any, these instructions will have on your phone or other device. The links below are to third party sites not affiliated with or endorsed by the State of Tennessee. You should use them at your own risk.)

    The video at this link provides step by step instructions for disabling location tracking on an iPhone, Android, or Blackberry device. There are also various computer programs that will delete geotags from your pictures so you can post them online without losing your geographic anonymity, such as the free program Geotag Security.

    Consumers may contact the Division of Consumer Affairs to file a complaint against a company by calling 1-800-342-8385 or visiting www.tn.gov/consumer.

    Remember the first rule of Internet safety is: location, location, location. .