Geotagging: Tracking Your Every Move

(By Chris Potter, School Resource Officer, Fargo South High School)

Katie is a technology junkie who has a new BlackBerry, the trendy multi-tool of electronic gadgets so many of her classmates have.  Now connected around the clock to her friends, Katie delights in posting pictures, videos and updates to her Facebook page wherever she goes – at school, home, work, team practice, vacation – even local hangouts, “just chillin” with her “peeps.”  Little does Katie know she is leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs known as “geotags”, accurate to within a few feet and only a mouse-click away.

As if society hasn’t suffered enough loss of privacy in the digital age, now comes “geo-stalking” – the ability to track others’ locations, movements and routines via geotagged online posts.

Geotags – embedded GPS coordinates attached to transmissions and files sent from GPS-enabled electronic devices like smartphones – act like digital homing devices, allowing a sender’s movements to be located with disturbing accuracy, often without knowing their posts contain geotags.  As teens gravitate toward newer and smarter devices, they may unwittingly reveal their daily routines and locations to geo-stalkers – even their home addresses and routes home from school.

Most people don’t realize that automatic geotagging takes place on their smartphones.  As a result, individuals often unwittingly share too much information about their location, right down to the exact latitude and longitude coordinates when shooting photos with their smartphone and posting them online – the equivalent of posting one’s home address on a public website.

Smartphone owners can disable their automatic geotagging feature, usually by changing the phone settings.  One drawback, however, is the possible loss of mapping and navigation applications once geotagging is switched off.  Users who familiarize themselves with these settings can enable and disable geotagging to suit their needs and comfort levels.

Parents, who are often lagging behind the technology curve compared to their children, should take the time to research their child’s electronic devices and make sure they understand how geotagging affects safety and privacy.

A story on geotagging and how to limit your online exposure with a smartphone device appeared recently on ABC’s Good Morning America.