Whipping out your smartphone to snap and post online pictures of yourself and your kids relaxing at home — or perhaps that pricey new TV you just hung on your rec-room wall — is like throwing chum to a sea of hungry sharks.
That's because smartphone images can be deciphered to reveal precisely where the photos were taken, which security experts say could lead burglars or other criminals directly to your front door. Similarly, they add, posting images from vacation sites or your workplace could invite crooks to ransack your house while you're away.
Smartphone photos are embedded with "geotags" containing the latitude and longitude. When deciphered with the help of photo-sharing websites, various apps or other methods, those coordinates can enable someone using Google Maps to identify the precise spots depicted in the images.
That also makes the technology useful, for example, for someone with scads of photos who can't otherwise remember where some of them were taken. And sharing geotagged photos online has become so commonplace, many people hardly give it a second thought.
But geotagged photos have posed unanticipated problems for even the most computer-savvy people. That includes antivirus software company founder John McAfee. After eluding Belize authorities, who wanted to talk to him as a "person of interest" in the 2012 shooting death of his neighbor, McAfee's location was revealed when a photo of his Guatemalan hideout was posted online.
The nonprofit National White Collar Crime Center has cautioned that placing such pictures on the Internet can be dangerous.
The military is worried, too. The Army issued a warning about geotagged photos after some soldiers posted pictures of military helicopters landing at an Iraqi base in 2007. Using the photos' location data, enemy attackers precisely targeted and destroyed four copters.
And the New York Times reported that documents obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show U.S. and British spy authorities have the ability to view geotag data in photos uploaded to social media sites.