One of my big passions is photography. I’m quite old-school as I mostly use a big DSLR, post-process my shots on the PC and upload some keepers to Flickr. But I’m also using my mobile phone camera more and more. Nothing beats the convenience of snapping a shot and being able to upload in one sweep. Some people, like me, just have a mental barrier to overcome, the technical perfectionism. A shot can be fun and interesting even if you haven’t spent hours tweaking it. I’m working on that…
Sharing photos on the net is fun, but did you know how much a single picture can tell? I’m not talking about the traditional “more than 1000 words” here. I’m talking about metadata. This is invisible data that describes the content and is embedded in the picture file. This is some of the data that a photo can contain:
All this data does really provide a lot of added value. You can automatically have shots sorted by capture time, you can plot photo locations on maps, find all shots taken with a certain camera or lens, and so on. The possibilities are almost endless. But metadata is like all other great things, it can be used and misused. The downside is naturally privacy.
I did a quick test with my Nokia Lumia, which is a Windows Phone -device. It turned out that its camera embeds the date and time, photographic parameters and the GPS-location automatically. But data about the owner is not included. This data is also kept when using all share-options that I currently have available; mail, Flickr, Facebook, SkyDrive and DropBox. There’s no setting anywhere that would control this behavior. In theory, I could reveal my exact location every time I upload a photo.
But this is not the full story. The service that you upload to can also decide how to process metadata. Facebook strips it altogether. This design was probably implemented to save storage space, but has a positive side-effect on privacy. Photographers who are interested in the photo parameters are however not happy. Flickr uses a different strategy. Metadata is extracted and used in the interface. You can decide if you want it to be showed or not. Users can also download smaller picture files without metadata, or the original with all data intact, if you choose to allow it. It’s quite natural that Flickr is more advanced as it is a site focusing on photo sharing.
So what should I do about this?
To summarize. You do not necessary have a privacy problem with metadata in photos you share. It depends on many factors. The device you take photos with, the software you use to process and transmit the shots and finally the site where they are published. And naturally your own privacy expectation, what data are you ready to share? But the most important point is to be on top of this yourself. Don’t leave it to chance. Check what you share and make up your mind if it’s OK or not.
An exercise for you. Download the photo file in this post and check what kind of metadata you can find in it. It’s taken straight from my workflow program on the PC, no data removed.
PS. Also keep this in mind if you feel tempted to cheat about when and where a shot is taken. You are unlikely to get away with it if you have photo-savvy friends.
Photo by Micke-fi @ Flickr
When George Lucas' Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope hit theaters in May 25, 1977 the vision of a world that existed a "long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" was startlingly new. The film opens with a massive Imperial Star Destroyer chasing a rebel ship and features routine space travel and battles suggestive of both of the age of King Arthur and a high-tech future, as depicted by visual effects pioneers Industrial Light & Magic. It also features a wire-frame animation (replicated below) of the Death Star, one of the first uses of computer animation ever to make it into a motion picture. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVMnwd4mZlA] Less than a month later, history was made in the personal computer industry when Apple released the Apple II on June 10, 1977. At $1,298 -- which is just over $5,000 in today's U.S. dollars -- the machine that operated using Applesoft BASIC would become one of the first microcomputers to win widespread adoption, eventually expanding personal computing beyond hobbyists by offering business applications like VisiCalc, the first computer spreadsheet program for PCs. By the time Apple phased out the II series in 1993 between 5 and 6 million units had been sold. During 1999, the year when Lucas launched his first of the prequels Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, more than 114 million PCs were sold and the explosion of the World Wide Web had sped up widespread adoption of internet-connected computers. EverQuest -- the second massively multi-player online game after Ultima Online and the first with a 3-D engine -- was released on March 16, 1999 and within months more than two-hundred thousand players had subscribed. On May 19th, Phantom Menace hit theaters with only one scene that wasn't altered by visual effects. It was the first Star Wars film to feature fully computer generated characters including Jar Jar Binks, so maybe that wasn't a great idea. That year Apple released its its iMac computers in a variety of colors, Intel released its Pentium III and the computer virus Melissa -- the first able to spread itself through email -- became the fastest spreading malware ever and hit 250,000 PCs worldwide. The Mobile Web also debuted in Japan via the i-mode networking standard. According to the Computer History Museum Timeline of Computer History, it offered "web access, e-mail, mobile payments, streaming video, and many other features that the rest of the world won't see for nearly another decade." Free PC gave away 10,000 Compaq computers, one of many companies that offered hardware or Internet access in exchange for viewing ads. Many of these companies were bankrupt by December of that year. This is what a 1999-era Compaq running Windows 98 looks like: [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii51iSCnE0Q] The full trailer of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens debuted in October of 2015. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGbxmsDFVnE] This follows only six months after Apple introduced its Apple Watch wearable device. The number of computers sold each year -- when you combine personal computers with smartphones and tablets -- now numbers in the billions with more than a billion devices powered by Google's Android operating system alone being sold each year. The largest PC maker in the world Lenovo sold 58 million units in 2014. The director of The Force Awakens J.J. Abrams had no input whatsoever from its creator George Lucas who sold to the franchise to Disney. But Abrams studiously sought to connect the new film to the original trilogy. He did this both by working with the writer of Episode IV: The Empire Strikes Back Lawrence Kasdan and through effects that focused on continuity with the movie's predecessors, with only a judicious use of computer generated images. [Apple II image by Narnars0]
The European Union is preparing a new data protection package. It is making headlines because there are plans to raise the age limit for digital consent from 13 to 16 years. This has sometimes been describes as the age limit for joining social media. To be precise, member states could choose their age limit within this range. Younger kids would need parental consent for creating an account in social media and similar networks. We can probably agree that minors’ use of the internet can be problematic. But is an age limit really the right way to go? It’s easy to think of potential problems when children and teenagers start using social media. The platforms are powerful communication tools, for good and bad. Cyberbullying. Grooming. Inappropriate content. Unwanted marketing. Getting addicted. Stealing time and attention from homework or other hobbies. And perhaps most important. Social media often becomes a sphere of freedom, a world totally insulated from the parents and their silly rules. In social media you can choose your contacts. There’s no function that enables parents to check what the kids are doing, unless they accept their parents as friends. And the parents are often on totally different services. Facebook is quickly becoming the boring place where mom and granny hangs out. Youngsters tend to be on Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Periscope or whatnot instead. But is restricting their access to social media the right thing to do? What do we achieve by requiring parental consent before they sign up? This would mean that parents, in theory, have a chance to prevent their children from being on social media. And that’s good, right? Well, this is a flawed logic in several ways. First, it’s easy to lie about your age. Social media in generic has very poor authentication mechanisms for people signing up. They are not verifying your true identity, and can’t verify your age either. Kids learn very quickly that signing up just requires some simple math. Subtract 16, or whatever, from the current year when asked for year of birth. The other problem is that parental consent requirements don’t give parents a real choice. Electronic communication is becoming a cornerstone in our way to interact with other people. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is for our children to learn the rules and skills of this new world. Preventing kids from participating in the community where all their friends are could isolate them, and potentially cause more harm than the dark side of social media. What we need isn’t age limits and parental consent. It’s better control of the content our children are dealing with and tools for parents to follow what they are doing. Social media is currently designed for adults and everyone have tools to protect their privacy. But the same tools become a problem when children join, as they also prevent parents from keeping an eye on their offspring. Parental consent becomes significant when the social media platforms start to recognize parent-child relationships. New accounts for children under a specified age could mandatorily be linked to an adult’s account. The adult would have some level of visibility into what the child is doing, but maybe not full visibility. Metadata, like whom the child is communicating with, would be a good start. Remember that children deserve s certain level of privacy too. Parents could of course still neglect their responsibilities, but they would at least have a tool if they want to keep an eye on how their kids are doing online. And then we still have the problem with the lack of age verification. All this is naturally in vain if the kids can sign up as adults. On top of that, children’s social media preferences are very volatile. They do not stay loyally on one service all the time. Having proper parent-child relationships in one service is not enough, it need to be the norm on all services. So we are still very far from a social media world that really takes parents’ and children’s needs into account. Just demanding parental consent when kids are signing up does not really do much good. It’s of course nice to see EU take some baby steps towards a safer net for our children. But this is unfortunately an area where baby steps isn’t enough. We need a couple of giant leaps as soon as possible. Safe surfing, Micke Image by skyseeker
We are all sad about what’s happened in Paris last Friday. It’s said that the terrorist attacks have changed the world. That is no doubt true, and one aspect of that is how social media becomes more important in situations like this. Facebook has deployed two functions that help people deal with this kind of crisis. The Safety Check feature collects info about people in the area of a disaster, and if they are safe or not. This feature was initially created for natural disasters. Facebook received criticism for using it in Paris but not for the Beirut bombings a day earlier. It turned out that their explanation is quite good. Beirut made them think if the feature should be used for terror attacks as well, and they were ready to change the policy when Paris happened. The other feature lets you use a temporary profile picture with some appropriate overlay, the tricolor in this case. This is a nice and easy way to show sympathy. And it became popular very quickly, at least among my friends. The downside is however that it seemed so popular that those without a tricolor were sticking out. Some people started asking them why they aren’t supporting the victims in Paris? The whole thing has lost part of its meaning when it goes that far. We can’t know anymore who genuinely supports France and who changed the picture because of the social pressure. I changed my picture too. And it was interesting to see how the feature was implemented. The Facebook app for iOS 9 launched a wizard that let me make a picture with the tricolor overlay. Either by snapping a new selfie or using one of my previous profile pictures. I guess the latter is what most people want to do. But Facebook’s wizard requires permissions to use the camera and refuses to start until the user has given that permission. Even if you just want to modify an existing picture. Even more spooky. The wizard also asked for permission to use the microphone when I first run it. That is, needless to say, totally unnecessary when creating a profile picture. And Facebook has been accused of misusing audio data. It’s doubtful if they really do, but the only sure thing is that they don’t if you deny Facebook microphone access. But that was probably a temporary glitch, I was not able to reproduce the mic request when resetting everything and running the wizard again. Your new profile picture may be temporary, but any rights you grant the Facebook app are permanent. I’m not saying that this is a sinister plot to get more data about you, it may be just sloppy programming. But it is anyway an excellent reminder about how important the app permissions are. We should learn to become more critical when granting, or denying, rights like this. This is the case for any app, but especially Facebook as its whole business model is based on scooping up data about us users. Time for an app permission check. On your iOS device, go to Settings and Privacy. Here you can see the categories of info that an app can request. Go through them and think critically about if a certain app really needs its permissions to provide value to you. Check Facebook's camera and microphone permissions if you have used the temporary profile picture feature. And one last thing. Make it a habit to check the privacy settings now and then. [caption id="attachment_8637" align="aligncenter" width="169"] This is how far you get unless you agree to grant Facebook camera access.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_8638" align="aligncenter" width="169"] The Settings, Privacy page. Under each category you find the apps that have requested access, and can select if the request is granted or denied.[/caption] Safe surfing, Micke PS. The temporary profile picture function is BTW simpler in Facebook's web interface. You just see your current profile picture with the overlay. You can pan and zoom before saving. I like that approach much more. Photo by Markus Nikander and iPhone screen captures