Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Photos and Privacy: Should We Be Worried?

Yesterday I went on a bit of a genealogical adventure (more on that in a later post).  Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera along.  It wasn't a total loss because I had the camera on my cell phone available though the quality of photos isn't as good.

Recently I made a change to my cell phone settings so that my photos automatically get uploaded privately to my Google+ account after being taken.

Upon my return I decided to check out how Google+ handled my photographs.   Google+ allows me to share, tag, and do basic editing to my uploaded features. 

When clicking on the photo details option I was surprised to discover an option called location.  The location tab provided a zoomable map showing the exact location where the photo was taken.

When on a genealogical adventure this is pretty handy thing.  I had gone to several cemeteries where I wasn't sure of there exact locations.  Now I just have to click on the map to see where I was.

The thing that concerned me a bit was the thought of uploading photos to Google+ or any other site and having the locations available.  I might not worry about the locations of cemeteries but there may be times that I don't want to share the location of a photo.

So I decided to do an experiment and upload several of my photos from yesterday to share on Google+.  I was happy to discover that the publicly shared version of the photo did not display the location in the photo details.  The only information displayed was about the file itself.

But that got me wondering, "Is the information really gone or just hidden?"  Just to be sure I opened the public version of the photo in Adobe Bridge.  I didn't see any location information listed in the meta file information.  Then again, I didn't see any location options in the meta file information either.  I'm not particularly savvy yet with Adobe Bridge so perhaps I just don't know where to find it.

Still I'm not convinced.  Perhaps the gps information is still there and available to programmers who know how to get at this kind of detail.  If you are more technical than I am please let me know if that is the case.

Overall, I am pleased that my phone provides me with location information for my photos and even more pleased that Google+ doesn't upload that information to share publicly. All the same, I'm still going to be very cautious about what photos I share publicly but this is a good start.

Dick Eastman has talked quite about about photography and privacy on Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter.  Please let me know if you have more to share on this topic.  Send me a link or leave me a comment.


  1. The GPS coordinates are embedded in the file. In Bridge (at least in the version I'm using), it's in the GPS section of the metadata. It would be interesting to see which sites actually strip that out for the public version of the photo and which just don't display it. (Big difference in terms of privacy!)

  2. Very interesting, Marion. Potential for great use and abuse here. The issue is not the technology, but how we use it. If we're on auto-pilot and not truly thinking we may share locations we ought not. Yet how wonderful to be able to share a photo that allows another to find a grave, a house, the best muffin in town. My motto is becoming "Deliberate" - really think about what I am sharing and who I am sharing with.

  3. A google search for "jpg file metadata", or something similar, will reveal a lot of information about file formats of tiff and jpeg files and metadata in these files. Here's a site that has a lot of info and a program (Windows PC) that can be used to strip metadata from your JPEG files.


    I would keep a backup copy of the original of the file and strip the metadata when it is uploaded to the web.

    Dale Gunn

  4. Thanks for addressing this issue. I recently purchased an Android phone and have been wondering about location information possibly being in the metadata but hadn't delved into it yet.

    You can't be too careful these days. We need to really understand what we are and are not making public!

  5. Food for thought, thanks Marian.

    I think I'll just have to change my phone settings according to the situation I am in when using it for happy snaps.

  6. The GPS is part of the 'Exif', not the metadata that includes tags, captions, copyrights, etc, sometimes known as IPTC. Different department.

    I've noticed there's an option in XnView when emailing a photo direct to delete the metadata. When using other software in other ways I try to remember to strip it out because I'm pretty obsessive about putting it into photos in the first place.

    If it's photos being shared between genealogy cousins that's fine. It's there for a reason. Uploading photos to a larger unidentified crowd identifying your exact location, maybe not so good.