Thursday, October 21, 2010

Uploading photos to Facebook & Twitter Can Make You a Target for Crime

by Meghan A. Dwyer

At 10:31 a.m. Paul Hebert, a resident of Greenville, S.C., posted a photo to his Twitter account, Incentintel. The photo, uploaded to Twitpic, was geo-tagged with his exact location – near Roosevelt Road in Chicago. The website icanstalku.com posted the tweet as an example of dangerous, inadvertent oversharing of information on social networking sites that can lead to crimes like stalking and robbery.

Not only do we know that Hebert is not at home – we know his exact location in Chicago. By posting a single photo from his Android phone, he’s made himself vulnerable to real-world attacks.

Geo-tagging is a form of metadata, or data located inside of other data. In some cases, when a photo is uploaded from a GPS-enabled camera or phone, that photo’s metadata includes precise longitudinal and latitudinal information.

In other words, if you are trying to sell your diamond earrings on Craigslist, and you take a photo of them sitting on your dresser with your iPhone, a simple right click of a mouse could show exactly where you live and where your jewelry resides. And if you tell potential buyers to call you after 6 p.m., we can assume you probably aren’t home during the day.

Criminals don’t have to be computer-savvy to get the information, either.

“I could train a grade-schooler to do it,” said Ben Jackson, a security analyst in Massachusetts who co- founded icanstalku.com to raise awareness of geo-tagging.

The website alters people’s tweets to illustrate how they are inadvertently sharing more than a mere photo. For example, instead of a tweet that reads “Check out this amazing car I want to buy,” the re-post will read “I am currently nearby 1100 N. Clark St. in Chicago, Ill.”

“Most people don’t know that they are sharing all of this information when they post a photo,” Jackson said.

After scouring Twitter, Jackson said he was surprised that about three percent of photos posted to the site are geo-tagged. Arbitron reports that 17 million Americans have Twitter accounts. Given the sheer number of photos users upload daily, he said, three percent is considerable.

“I was simultaneously shocked and amazed,” Jackson said.

Gerald Friedland, a multi-media researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, worked with a security analyst to measure the amount of location information available on sites like YouTube, Twitter and Craigslist. Not only were they able to find private addresses of celebrities in Beverly Hills, they also could pinpoint the exact location of otherwise anonymous Craigslist postings.

“What we found was really shocking,” Friedland said. “It’s not at all a fiction – it’s real.”

What started out as an innocent effort to retrieve data, he said, turned into cause for concern.

“We had to find out whether this was a problem or just a bad feeling,” he said. “Unfortunately, the research found out this really is a threat.”

As a researcher, Friedland said, his goal was to let the public know this was happening before criminals caught on.

But right after his study was published in May, suspects in New Hampshire used Facebook and other social networking sites to “cybercase” and burglarize more than 50 homes.

Maura Possley, deputy press secretary for the Illinois Attorney General, said the Attorney General’s Office hasn’t heard of any particular cases in Illinois stemming from social networking sites. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

“We are very aware of the issue,” she said. As a result, she said, Illinois law was modified in January to allow victims of cyberstalking to seek restraining orders.

But the concerns over geo-tagging reach beyond criminal victimization. It’s about privacy, Friedland said.

“I would be much more comfortable going into an airport body scanner,” he said, “than posting the location of my home online.”

The problem, Friedland explained, is that smartphones are unforgivingly accurate.

“My car GPS is actually less accurate than my cell phone,” he said.

By simply disabling the GPS function on your phone, you can prevent geo-tagging. Unfortunately, Friedland said, this may mean that some users won’t be able to use GPS applications like Google Maps.

As geo-tagging becomes more widely understood, Friedland hopes that people will take precautions to protect their privacy. He also would like social networking sites to start purposefully removing location information.

However, he said, geo-tagging in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Originally, geo-tags were used to make life with technology easier.

For example, he said, you take three vacations a year and download the photos into your computer. Geo-tags will make sure your Florida, California and Spain photos are separated into different folders.

The problem, Friedland said, is that most people don’t even know about geo-tagging.

“People are not thinking when they use FourSquare or Facebook,” he said.

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