KANSAS CITY, Missouri - Pictures you’ve e-mailed or uploaded from your smartphone could be leaking location information threatening your safety or that of your children.
“Perfect, just like that,” cooed NBC Action News staffer Susanne McDonald to her four-year-old daughter Laine as she took a series of smartphone pictures. “Ready? One, two, three! Good girl.”
We loaned McDonald and Laine a smartphone to see just how threatening a seemingly innocent snapshot could be once loaded online.
Police are concerned
“It's frightening,” said Leawood School Resource Police Officer Mark Chudik when we showed him what we had uncovered.
We searched by entering the names of area cities. We easily identified the home addresses and play areas of children whose pictures were posted by their parents.
“That is legitimately terrifying,” said McDonald when we showed her information we obtained from pictures she posted of daughter Laine.
It's a new and frightening threat to parents.
The full risk is even an unknown to many internet crime experts, like Chudik, who said he’d never seen private information shared so quickly in such an unknown manner.
He calls the hidden smartphone data today's biggest risk online.
“It's probably going to be number one for a while,” Chudik said.
Technique involves free, easily available software
Chudik used a free browser add-on to click on pictures of four-year-old Laine.
He not only found her home when he clicked on a picture of her bedroom, but located her day care, favorite fast food shop, and the specific part of the park where she plays.
“The fact that they found the bedroom is terrifying,” McDonald said. “Scary, like terrifying. Especially as a parent because of the fact that you can see the exact place of it.”
We searched online servers by local cities creating a menu of nearby children and their locations.
With one online bedroom picture, we were able to find the home of two Olathe brothers.
When we went to their home to warn their parents, they declined to comment, but did change the settings on their Photobucket account to private.
How it works
At UMKC, computer science Professor Deep Medhi says smartphones leave a high-tech invisible trail using the same geotracking technology that enables the social website Foursquare and handheld map apps.
“Exactly like in your GPS device in your car,” Medhi said. “When you do it, it can tell you exactly where it is.”
Medhi showed how the easily-obtained software can translate geotagged photos, uploaded or linked from popular websites, into maps.
“Exactly that spot where that picture was taken,” Medhi said.
How to deactivate your geotagging
The site icanstalku.com reposts pictures from unwitting Twitter users in real time, translating their photos into actual addresses and maps.
The site also lists a how to deactivate geotagging on the iPhone, Blackberry with GPS, Google Android, and Palm WebOS.
The site recommends restricting which applications can access GPS marking, or turning off location services altogether, in your smartphone settings.
“You want to be able to do it almost on a picture basis,” Medhi said.
“I don't think you can think of anything worse than a stranger knowing all that information,” said Officer Chudik.
Experts say you can still be perfectly safe by turning off GPS settings before taking pictures you plan to post online and by keeping your online photo servers restricted to private.
Copyright 2010 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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