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I Marine Expeditionary Force

From Every Clime and Place

Geotags invade privacy and OPSEC

By Sgt. Heidi E. Agostini | | January 07, 2011

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The action of automatic geotagging takes place on many smartphones. Some are enabled by default. Users can prevent their information from being posted by disabling the GPS function on their phone. ::r::::n::::r::::n::

The action of automatic geotagging takes place on many smartphones. Some are enabled by default. Users can prevent their information from being posted by disabling the GPS function on their phone. ::r::::n::::r::::n:: (Photo by courtesy photo)


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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- You want to show off your new car and you take a picture with your smartphone. Then, you post it to Picasa or Flickr, both location-based social-networking services.

But did you know the GPS information embedded in that picture can show people where you live or work?

The growing trend is geotagging, where the GPS in your smartphone automatically attaches your longitude and latitude, along with other info, to your picture. 

“If you have a smartphone, it’s already encrypted to supply metadata,” said Maj. Rocky Williams, the future operations officer for I Marine Expeditionary Force.  “Every time you take a picture, shoot video and share it with your friends, you pass grid coordinates of where you did that action. When you post it on Facebook or Picasa, the world has access to where you shot that footage.”

Williams said most smartphone users don’t realize what type of data they’re posting.  By posting that information, they’re allowing their movements to be recorded and analyzed by anyone. After analyzing your photos, someone could find out where you live, commuting patterns, where you work and how many hours you’re at work each day, exposing your home to would-be thieves.

An example of geotagging gone wrong happened with Adam Savage, host of Discovery Channel's “Mythbusters.” Savage inadvertently revealed where he lived when he posted a picture from his iPhone of his car at his home.

Features such as Facebook's Check-in, Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt allow individuals with a smartphone to broadcast their location. These applications are typically used to earn points, badges, discounts and awards at various shopping locations. Williams warns about such features, adding that publicly broadcasting your whereabouts and revealing your every movements may put you in danger.

Concerns about social media are nothing new in the military, but location-based services pose a problem because they could reveal the military's exact coordinates. 

A search for “Afghanistan” on one site can reveal thousands of tagged images taken by deployed service members with smartphones.

“About 75 percent of those photos have a geotag encrypted in it,” Williams said. “You can download photos, put them on your computer, and know where that checkpoint, security post or base is located. You are feeding the enemy information.”

“Technology is evolving rapidly,” Williams said. “The Marine Corps does not have an order and the ALMAR is outdated. There isn’t a lot of information on what to do and what not to do. There is a lot of latitude, but it only tells you to use your best judgment.”

Williams said no other military service except for the Army has a strict punishment for compromising data via social networks. However, since the Marine Corps gives commander’s discretion, it allows them the flexibility to take it to Article 92, failure to obey order or regulation.  

Situational awareness is not limited to a combat environment. Corps small-unit leaders have always preached terrorism awareness both at home and abroad, and with the heightened sense of vigilance against threats of domestic terrorism and crime, it’s in an individual’s best interest to maintain a sense of unpredictability.

From routes taken to and from work, to favorite places to visit and eat, Internet users may want to reevaluate what information they share on social media sites. The potential compromising of operational security, as well as personal security, may cause some smartphone owners to rethink how much information they share in the future.

“I knew not to post anything on Facebook that would affect our security, but I never thought about what would happen if I checked into a location and accidently let the entire world know I wasn’t home,” said iPhone owner, Cpl. Jose Ramos with 1st Marine Division. “I’ll probably disable the GPS from now on.”  

The action of automatic geotagging takes place on many smartphones. Some are enabled by default. Users can prevent their information from being posted by disabling the GPS function on their phone.