I’m going to keep this as short as I can so you can get through it without snoring or wretching.
Tonight I was writing a news story on the arrest of a man who is accused of initiating the massive celebrity photo leak last year. You may recall that private photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were obtained and released on the Internet. The worrisome part about that leak was that these photos were all said to have been so private and personal that the victims were stunned that anyone ever found them. Some swore that they never sent them to anyone, and only ever showed their boyfriend/husband in person. Some had long been deleted.
Many of these celebs’ Apple accounts were hacked, revealing their Photo Streams, even if they did not know they had that feature turned on. Android phones have similar features through Google. The idea is that your photos are all automatically saved for you in online archives, which you can choose to make public or private.
It’s Not Just Celebs
I did a couple of articles back when all this happened about the dangers of taking ANY nude photos with digital devices. Even if you are absolutely sure that you have these features disabled, there is a chance that they could be reenabled when updating your phone’s software. Then, any picture you take is waiting to be grabbed by someone who knows how to get to it all. Perhaps they hack your Apple or Google accounts. Perhaps they steal your phone or laptop. There are many ways.
“But I Use A Camera, Not a Phone”
But what about digital devices of other sorts, like standalone cameras? There are dangers in these too. For starters, even if you delete something on a digital device, most such devices do not really delete the item. This is true for many computer systems, phones, cameras, etc. The system simply changes the name of the file, hiding it from easy view, and indicating to itself that the space it occupies is available to be written over again.
All someone has to do is get their hands on your camera or the SD card within it, and they can quite easily browse that storage with other available software and reveal what it contains, including your pictures.
Finding Your Home Address From Your Pics
But another huge danger is due to something called “geotagging.” You may already be familiar with this feature. Most digital cameras and phones have this feature and it can be very nice. It embeds metadata onto your photos that includes the GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken.
This part can get downright scary. If you or your kids ever send a compromising photo — indeed, ANY photo — to someone, this feature can lead them right to your house. In fact, some photos posted online retain this information. Many websites strip it out, which is helpful. But if it is there — for example, in places I will show you in a moment — it could be a serious problem.
Let me show you how.
Here is a photo I took a few years ago of a house in Lexington.
I was doing some survey research work and no one lived there at the time. I took the photo and later deleted it from my iPhone. However, I had apparently synced my phone to my Mac before deleting the picture, so the Mac’s built-in iPhoto software saved the picture.
If I simply open this picture in the Mac’s built-in Preview software, I can then Inspect the metadata with two mouse clicks. This reveals to me the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of this house.
One more mouse click gets me a map. Notice the street address matches the number on the house in the photo. (You can right-click and open the image in a new tab to see it enlarged.)
There is no “hacking” to this. These are all built-in functions of normal phones, computers, and software. There are equivalent functions on Windows computers.
The person who stole all those celebrity photos likely has GPS coordinates for the places they were taken. If you take a photo of yourself or anyone else, especially one of a compromising nature, you are only one mistake away from this being your situation. Even if your photo does not include your face, anyone with half an hour to kill and geotag info available could match that photo with others they find of you.
There are ways to shut off geotagging in most devices. As a responsible adult, you can research these methods, stay vigilant about all your devices, and protect yourself.
But what about your kids?
My son has a phone now. That phone has a camera and SMS capability (like almost every phone for the past 10+ years). If he sends a picture that he shouldn’t, maybe thinking it is a funny joke, likely nothing will happen.
Out In The Matrix
But that picture stays out there. Once sent, it is on servers, likely never deleted. Even if the recipient deletes it from his own phone, it is still out there.
Once upon a time, I worked in tech support for Blackberry on their smartphones. A father called in to the center and talked to a colleague sitting next to me. He was panicked about his teenage daughter. He asked my colleague to get into her Picture Mail (MMS) account on her Sprint Blackberry phone. This is definitely something a tech support worker in a call center in the middle of Kentucky can do, even without supervisor approval. My colleague would not send him anything he found, but he could have sent it to anyone. And he sure found some things. His daughter had been sending nude photos to an adult male.
But it gets worse.
Seedy Characters With Your Info
There are online forums where people in each state trade compromising pictures of ex-girlfriends. They typically post the city, first name, last initial and give a word that the last name rhymes with. Here is a typical (clothed) post requesting further info. Notice the handy links allowing users to search Google Images and EXIF info (which may contain geotags). Often these pictures are nude, and the poster asks for “wins” (more nudes).
This particular picture is a girl in L********. With the name clues provided, anyone can find her Facebook page within 15 seconds. There are dozens more girls listed in Lexington, Pikeville, Elizabethtown, Danville, etc.
Folks, these pictures just sit out there, waiting for someone to find them. Again, there is no “hacking” or special skills here. No software to download. No shadowy associates to navigate.
These girls took pictures that some of them thought would remain forever safe and private. Some deliberately and freely sent naked pictures of themselves to people. Now they are being traded, GPS information sought, and personal info divulged.
It’s not my aim to cause alarm or paranoia, but the phones and cameras that we all have and that our kids get have the capability of doing this. The odds of something outrageous happening increase when those devices are used carelessly.
I’ll leave you with a story about The Boss.
Many years ago, Bruce Springsteen dated a photographer. One time, she was taking pictures of him while they both drank wine. Bruce got a little bold and started taking off his shirt as she snapped pics. No problem; she snapped on. He playfully started to drop his pants. She stopped him cold.
“Don’t ever take your clothes off in front of a camera,” she warned. “Those pictures WILL get out. You may think you have them. You may think you trust the photographer. But it’s just a matter of time.”
It’s a big world; we have to live in it. Don’t be scared, but be smart. (202)