Here's a scary story about technology. A recent New York Times story Web Photos That Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live begins like this:
"When Adam Savage, host of the popular science program 'MythBusters,' posted a picture on Twitter of his automobile parked in front of his house, he let his fans know much more than that he drove a Toyota Land Cruiser."
Because he took the photo with his iPhone that, unknown to him, had the geotagging feature enabled, included in the metadata of the photo was a geotag, which contained the exact longitude and latitude of his home. He has since turned off the feature and moved, but this brings up an important concept for lawyers, and really anyone concerned about their privacy. We usually think of metadata in relation to hidden information contained in word processing documents or other computer files we produce at work. (See my prior post/article on metadata.) But photo geotags are a far-reaching idea. With the huge number of places that people can upload photos, either to share through social media or anonymously, this will not be the last time we hear of this.
Imagine the reaction of a DEA agent upon learning that the grower of an illegal crop has posted a few tagged pictures of his plants online or when someone with an outstanding arrest warrant posts some recent picture. Can we see the day ahead where a "harboring a fugitive" charge is based largely on a photo geotag? It doesn't take too much imagination to think of different types of situations were the precise location where a photo was taken might be relevant and important evidence.
Conspiracy theorists will be suspicious to learn that the website with instructions on how to disable geotagging on different phones cited in the Times article is now offline. Maybe Big Brother doesn't want us to have this information. (It is more likely that so many people using the link in the Times caused the bandwdith limits of the site to be exceeded.)
There's nothing wrong with geotagging. One individual who toured Turkey recently noted that the tags made the posted photos of his trip much more useful. Geotagging, in many forms, is a fun hobby for many. But since this is a hidden feature, everyone should figure out if this feature is enabled in their phones and how to turn it off and on. And no doubt some lawyer somewhere will be using this information somehow soon.
But for now when websites or other services ask me if I want to "share my location," my default answer is No. And, in the unlikely event I get to tour some foreign country for weeks in the future, I'll do more research into geotags.
For those who are interested in learning more about metadata, the Oklahoma Bar Association will feature yours truly doing a live online webcast Legal Ethics and Metadata at noon CST on August 24, 2010. Our CLE Director Donita Douglas would want me to note that any lawyer can register for this program, not just Oklahoma lawyers. You can register and find more information here.