There are two areas related to geotagging photos that lawyers need to appreciate. One is related to privacy and security concerns of both lawyers and their clients. Another relates to the sometimes-hidden evidentiary value of geotagged photos.
As Brian X. Chen, consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, noted in a recent column “Just say no to photo locations”, “Imagine that you’ve met someone on a dating app and you text that person a selfie from your favorite coffee shop. If you’re there every morning, you might not want a near-stranger to have the exact location of a place you frequent regularly.”
Geotagging basically means attaching geographic coordinates to media based on the location of a phone camera or other mobile device. The location information and time stamps are not readily viewable to someone viewing a digital photo. So many people do not know that the embedded information, known as Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data, exists. This data will reveal which phone or camera was used to take the photo. Geotags are applied to photos and videos. We see location tags attached to social media posts as well, but most social media websites filter out the geotag metadata in posted photos because a large number of “near strangers” might have access to it..
In Windows, simply right-click a picture file, select “Properties,” and then click the “Details” tab in the properties window. Look for the Latitude and Longitude coordinates under GPS. Latitude and Longitude can be entered into Google Maps to find the location within a few yards. Google offers instructions for properly formatting the coordinates for Google Maps. But when I opened a photo taken at ABA TECHSHOW years back, Photos showed a thumbnail map of the location and a link to an online map just by selecting File Info.
In macOS, right-click the image file (or use Control+click), and select “Get Info.” You will see the Latitude and Longitude coordinates under the “More Info” section.
But those who want to disable adding GPS data entirely can go into their phone’s camera app and disable the location setting. On an iPhone, head to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Camera, and then select “Never” for the “Allow Location Access” option. On Android phones, this operation varies from phone to phone. The embedded data can also be deleted before sharing photos. In fact, most social media sites automatically strip the location data from uploaded images.
This location metadata can be very useful, such as organizing your vacation pictures. So, you may want to turn the feature back on when leaving on a pleasure trip.
But for many lawyers who have a situation where there are stalking allegations or threats of violence, teaching the client how to “un-tag” photos before sharing may be an important bit of advice. Some parents may also be interested in this approach. And, if you are dealing with a digital photo that seems questionable or implausible, checking the location geotag and other EXIF data can be done quickly after you learn how and may provide useful information.