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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Digital Photograph: Tag, You're It

Thanks to a friend, Becky Jenkins, for this post on digital photography and privacy. A photographer and college student, Becky wrote much of the following as research required for her work. She knew I possessed a keen interest in the subject, and she sent me her findings. I have used a lot of it for the post below while adding a little and limiting my own scope. So, Becky is extremely interested in your reactions to this relatively new technology. I hope you reply. Thanks again, Becky.

Mr. and Ms. American Citizen, you have the right to privacy. Correct? Yet, you do understand that the Constitution does not contain any express references or declarations that give you the right to privacy, don't you? Still, you ask, "How about the Bill of Rights?" Yes, some privacy rights are addressed in the Bill of Rights. For example, the First Amendment allows for the privacy of beliefs, and the Fourth Amendment allows for privacy in the home by restricting "unreasonable searches" by authorities.

Still, how about your privacy rights in respect to personal information, specifically those rights that relate to  the Internet and digital photography? You are protected, aren't you?

Here is a little history lesson. In 1980, a photographer for the New York Times snapped a photograph of a man man crossing the street in New York City, and subsequently, the photo was published in the newspaper. The man objected to his likeness being used, but ultimately lost the case because his name was not used, and the photograph was published for illustrative, not commercial purposes. In the ruling of that case, Arrington vs.The New York Times Company (1983), the New York Court of Appeals wrote: “An inability to vindicate a personal predilection for greater privacy may be part of the price every person must be prepared to pay for a society in which information and opinion flow freely.” (The Photographer's Guide to Privacy, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 1999)

Do many of you need yet another revelation? In 2007, Facebook enabled profiles to become searchable through their new Public Search Listings.You can see privacy concerns in this because it meant your profile would show up on all major search listings, through engines such as Google, Yahoo and MSN Search. To make sure that your profiles are kept private, you still can edit privacy settings on Facebook. You are aware of this privacy option, aren't you?

Of course, you are a happy digital citizen of the 21st century. You e-mail, browse, and do some social networking, don't you? With the Internet and interactive technologies being in their infancy, you have only started to understand the possibilities, and maybe more importantly, the consequences of your actions and participation. You may want to understand a little more about things such as tagging photographs.

Tagging Photographs

Potentially, people can publish inappropriate photos. These photographs can expose detrimental behaviors, offer sensitive information, or even project negative job attitudes. Today, many people are sharing everything, even the most personal information, with their friends. Sometimes, people unintentionally share too much.

There are also many reasons to be concerned about online privacy that have nothing to do with personal reputation. Whenever going on vacation, most people have someone pick up their mail or have it held at the post office. They arrange to have someone pick up the newspaper, and turn on lights in the house; the goal is to not call attention to the fact that we’re not at home.

Yet, when people post images from their iPhones or when they update their status with a photo and say things like "Today was the first day at the beach! A week isn’t long enough,” not only have they told the local thief that they are on vacation, but they have given him an entire week to steal their belongings.

Many people post the smallest details about their everyday lives online, from where and when they’re having dinner to where and when they are taking their kids to the playground. The un-adoring  public may be privy to such detail.

Tags are really nothing more than keywords used to describe a piece of data — be it a web page, a digital photo, or another type of digital document. The term tagging is often used in the context of organizing digital photos. On the surface, tagging seems harmless and efficient as means to identify pictures.

Tagging can become a problem when information that was thought to be “private” is posted on the Internet for public viewing. Unintended consequences to individuals (and their online “friends”) may occur when someone publicly shares this private information.
Caught in the web of convenience provided by instantaneous sharing, many people can't wait to use Internet tagging indiscriminately. The sheer fact people would inquire during a real event (for example, a party) as to whether the event will be recorded via photographs or videos on Facebook is a testament to the cultural conditioning that social utilities have achieved. Sharing photos has actually turning into something psychological in nature.

Often people feel the need to have some sort of physical evidence to show their Facebook friends of the amazing time they have had. It is done as if they have to say, "If I post this on Facebook, the world knows about it, and my sense of self-worth is immediately inflated with a mere photo comment like, 'Who's that girl you're with buddy. She's hot.'"

In the digital age, people can derive satisfaction by publicly displaying their socially active lifestyles through social utilities. Posts can become a sort of self-validation, and they use this to help shape popular Facebook identities. (Daniel Dizon, "Facebook Dangers -- Tagging Photos,", December 20 2010)

With tagging (or linking a post or photo to a user account), friends can “tag” content about others – photos, videos, status updates, etc., and attach that piece of information to their profile. Users can’t block people from tagging them, but they can remove the tag once it’s been assigned.

Users have absolutely no control over what photos are uploaded. If they are tagged, they may not have an immediate opportunity to log in and click "remove tag," or they may be unaware that the function to do so exists. (Jennifer Leggio, "New Privacy, Shmivcy -- Facebook Photo Tagging Still a Big Fail,", December 2 2009) 

Here is a tagging scenario. Uncle John is photographed at a wedding or party or other type of function, even if he is innocently eating a sandwich or talking to pals. And although he might be thrilled to have photos taken by friends or family for the sake of making memories, Uncle John may still not want these pictures of himself (or of his children) uploaded to social networks. Nonetheless, the photographer uploads the photos and tags them.

On the Web, people also use tagging to categorize Web pages through social bookmarking sites such as, Technorati, and others. Adobe's Photoshop Album digital photo organizer software brought the tagging concept to the mainstream for digital photography, and the popular online photo sharing service Flickr also helped to spur the trend.

It's a little known fact that most higher-end cell phone units are GPS enabled, and in some cases, image formats contain geotags in the metadata. Metadata is just data about data. Invisible to the naked eye – it’s embedded in the picture. The metadata in images is often retained by default by desktop image processing software and many online photo storage websites.

For example, digital photograph metadata contains information about the camera settings used to create the image, the time and date the image was taken, and on GPS enabled devices, geographic coordinates regarding the place the image was taken. This metadata can be very useful for those who wish to tie photographs to a location when they want to remember exactly where they took the photographs.

There are tools within the menus of these devices to turn off geo-location features, but most people don’t even realize what is happening – and, therefore, they don’t realize they need to turn these features off. And, doing this can sometimes turn off all GPS capabilities, including mapping, so it can get complicated. The Apple iPhone takes a more aggressive approach by asking users to re-decide to share location information with each new application installed.

In most cases, the process for adding the geolocation data either requires specialized add on hardware, or post processing with software on the desktop after the pictures are taken. In fact, less than four percent of all images have this information – but these numbers are expected to grow because the market share for these high-end, GPS enabled devices is growing. What is a mere four percent?

One study attempted to answer this question. It looked at geotags and Craig’s List (a site that’s best described as a virtual flea market). In the study, almost 69,000 images were downloaded and reviewed for EXIF information, and 48% of these images contained location-aware information, probably because many users upload images directly from their phones (Gerald Friedland & Robin Sommer, Cybercasing the Joint: On the Privacy Implications of GeoTagging, 5th Usenix Hot Topics in Security Workshop, 2010)
Among the images were photos of goods for sale, including bicycles, jewelry, and collectible items. Anyone, including criminals, could easily scan all items and determine the location of the seller

Even though the majority of modern digital cameras do not automatically add geolocation (Latitude and Longitude) metadata to pictures, one major exception does exist -- Smartphones. (Ben Jackson & Larry Pesce,, 2010)

The cameras in Smartphones are already equipped with the specialized hardware to automatically add geolocation information to the pictures at the time they are taken. Most people don't realize that the action of automatic geotagging takes place on their smart phones, either because it is enabled by default, not exposed to the user as an option, or was asked and then forgotten. As a result, individuals often share too much information about their location, right down to the exact latitude and longitude when snapping photos with their Smartpphone and posting them online.

Earlier this year, a real life example emerged that showed how easily a seemingly innocent photo gave away much more information about its creator than intended. Adam Savage, co-host of the Discovery Channel’“Mythbusters,” posted a photo on Twitter of his vehicle parked outside of his house. The image was uploaded directly from his Smartphone, and unknown to him, had geotag information embedded: specifically, the latitude and longitude of the location from which the image was taken. In other words, the image contained exact coordinates to find his house.

Not only could image viewers that extracted the metadata locate his house, but also they could figure the house would empty when Savage stated that he was “heading to work." Two of Adam’s followers reviewed the metadata from the image and promptly sent him an email that contained his address and a screenshot of his house via Google Maps. (Kate Murphy, "Web Photo Geotags Can Reveal More Than You Wish.", August 22 2010) 

Further Applications

Thousands of applications (or ‘apps’) for communication devices are in use or being developed. One popular example is “FourSquare," a data-aggregation site that allows users to virtually “check in” at their favorite spots and alerts users when a friend is physically nearby. The program learns a person's regular routine, and only posts check-ins when the the user has ventured someplace new or unusual. Friends can locate each other easily, and it’s considered to be a social networking application.

Targeting ads by filtering key terms from our email isn’t enough these days; marketers love the idea of learning more about consumer habits and have started using geo-location to target ads and even coupons to users. Yowza!! is an iPhone app already available to tailor this experience to the user’s preferences – users with this app on their device receive virtual coupons for the stores that they are physically close to.

In illustration of Yowza!!, if a user was in New York City and “checked in” at a trendy shopping area, he could literally receive coupons instantly via his device for local shops or restaurants. The coupons are based on previous detected, downloaded, and analyzed choices he had already made.

A creative new use of this technology is straight out of the movie Minority Report. Cameras embedded into a billboard can read metadata broadcast from a device (by an app) or analyze the person's physical characteristics (like age and gender) using special software. Then, the billboard can project a specific ad tailored for the individual.(Nilay Patel, "TruMedia Says Its Facial-recognition Billboards Will Never Record Video,", June 10 2008) (Yu-Yuan Chen,"Exploring the Human Computer Interactive Design- Interactive Billboard," 2008)

Location-aware software is also being embraced by parents because it allows them to track the daily the movements of their children via a website or an application on their devices. 

Now, entire websites have been dedicated to helping people understand how their information is being used. Among them, websites like “Please Rob Me” and “I Can Stalk U” post real time data collected from public Twitter feeds. Their goals are to raise awareness of how this information is being shared and offer information on how people can prevent their internet posts from sharing too much.

It is important to understand that each person has the power to make choices about how much and where certain photographic information is shared. These decisions require careful thinking. Everyone should read and understand privacy policies and site usage agreements. An exciting, useful technology exists  As consumers of the technology, each is responsible for its positive and negative outcomes. Education and further research are necessary to further understanding of the value and implications of easy-to-access digital imaging and geo-aware capable technology.

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