Keeping Your Privates Private - EXIF Data and You
The internet has a way of making everything seem so anonymous - you can leave comments on blogs using a pseudonym, post a personal ad on Craigslist or get an email account with a fake name in mere moments. On some level, I think we all know that these online interactions aren't completely private since websites routinely log the IP address of users and internet service providers log the activity of their subscribers. I'm often comforted knowing that the data trail I leave online is most likely lost in the massive amount of data collected, and unless I do something that attracts the attention of authorities or someone wants to steal my identity, no one is going to pay much attention to what I personally do online.
In the world of online dating (and online hooking up) photos have clearly become mandatory, and cruising any personal site you can see the variety of photographic techniques employed to keep the subject of the photo obscured. This results in a lot of photos of headless people, disembodied penises and the like, but it isn't clear that simply removing identifying features from photos is going to keep your identity (or location!) private.
In the good old days of digital photography before every device on your person contained a camera, digital cameras only collected a few bits (er, bytes) of data along with the photo. This data (called EXIF data) contained information about your camera, a thumbnail of the photo and the date and time. Unless you didn't want folks to know about your new expensive camera or when you took the photo, you didn't have to worry about your photos violating your privacy.
The proliferation of phones with cameras and the popularity of geotagging on Flickr and Picasa changed everything. If your phone (or camera) has any kind of GPS in it, for your convenience your photos may also embed your latitude and longitude along with your money shot. This of course makes geotagging your photos easier, but it also means that anyone with a computer and a tiny bit of technical knowledge can find out exactly when and where you took that photo.
Lots of dating sites do seem to strip EXIF data from the photos you post with your profile, but this is far from standard and generally, we just can't expect every website to be worthy of trust So, if you're someone who cruises the internet for sex or love or you just like to post photos online, what can you do?
Well, actually, it is pretty simple to remove EXIF data from your photos and unless you find automatic geotagging particularly useful, it is a worthwhile endeavour. In Windows XP, you can view and edit the EXIF data by right clicking on your photo and selecting 'properties' and then the 'summary'. If you've got a Mac, you can view and edit EXIF data by selecting your photo and then 'get info' in the Finder.
If you take your privacy extremely seriously, you can use a meta-data removal tool like Exifer or JPEG & PNG Stripper. If you're feeling nosy and want to snoop on other folks' EXIF data, check out this handy Firefox extension.