Military Personnel Warned Against Geotagging Photos
American military personnel could find their lives in danger due to an unlikely source — Facebook’s recently adopted Timeline feature — officials from the US Army warned earlier this week.
According to a BBC News report published Friday, the actual culprit is geotagged photographs, or pictures that are marked with the location where they were taken. Geotagging is a popular feature on the Mark Zuckerberg-founded social network and other websites like it, and many smartphones automatically include them, complete with GPS coordinates, when they are uploaded, the British news agency added.
“Today, in pretty much every single smartphone, there is built-in GPS,” Army spokesman Steve Warren told armed forces writer Cheryl Rodewig as part of an article posted on the military branch’s official homepage “For every picture you take with that phone, it will automatically embed the latitude and longitude within the photograph.”
Likewise, other social media sites and applications, including Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR, Shopkick, and Loopt, use GPS features built into the device used to take the picture in order to identify and publish the location from whence it originated, Rodewig added. That could put soldiers and their family in harm’s way.
“Do you really want everyone to know the exact location of your home or your children’s school?” Staff Sgt. Dale Sweetnam of the Online and Social Media Division said. “Before adding a location to a photo, soldiers really need to step back and ask themselves, ‘Who really needs to know this location information?’”
“In operations security, we talk about the adversary,” added Operations Security office Kent Grosshans. “The adversary could be a hacker, could be terrorists, could be criminals; someone who has an intent to cause harm. The adversary picks up on pieces of information to put the whole puzzle together… If your husband’s deployed and you go ahead and start posting all these pictures that are geotagged, now not only does an individual know your husband’s deployed and he’s not at home, but they know where your house is.”
Such concerns are not without precedent. According to the Telegraph, in 2007, a group of Iraqi insurgents used geotags embedded in Facebook photos to locate helicopters at an American military base. An attack launched based on that information resulted in the destruction of four Apache helicopters, Army officials told the UK paper.
The BBC reports that the British army has banned the use of mobile phones in warzones, and has warned soldiers against taking pictures using their smartphones, regardless of their location, in part because personal photos could be used against troops should they be captured by enemy forces.
Sweetnam also said that soldiers should exercise caution when “friending” someone on a social networking website.
“A good rule of thumb… is do not become friends with someone if you haven’t met them in person,” he said. “Make sure you’re careful about who you let into your social media circle.”
Image 2: Photos from smartphones are geotagged even when the user is unaware. Smartphone users can adjust their privacy settings to limit who can view their geotagged locations. Credit: U.S. Army Graphic
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