One picture can tell more than you think

BoatOne 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:

  • Date and time when the picture is taken
  • Photographic parameters like lens, aperture and exposure time
  • Geographical position from a GPS-device
  • Information about the device that took the picture, brand, model, serial number, etc.
  • Name and contact information of the device’s owner
  • Information about the photo’s copyright owner and rights to use the photo
  • A lot of other info that professionals and serious amateurs can use to manage large photo collections.

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?

  • What data you share depend on many factors, so you really have to find out yourself. Go to the site where your pictures are shared. Download a picture of yours and examine its metadata. This can be done by opening the file’s properties or with some special tool. Photo editing software usually let you examine and manipulate the metadata. Opanda IExif is a free tool for Windows. Think about what data you can see and if you think it is a privacy problem.
  • If you share photos from your mobile device, there may not be much you can do to manage metadata. Look for settings controlling metadata in the camera program and all apps used when sharing. You may also look for alternative apps with better controls. If nothing else helps, you may have to accept the situation, restrict your sharing or disable the GPS if position info is your concern.
  • Old-school folks who share through a computer have much more options. Most workflow programs have options that control what metadata you embed in the final files. There’s also many tools available that can strip metadata from files before you upload. I already mentioned one above.

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.

Safe surfing,
Micke

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

More posts from this topic

Whistle

How to blow the whistle and survive

Whistleblowers have changed the world and there’s still a lot of hidden secrets that the public really should know about. High-profile leakers like Snowden, Manning and Assange are known globally, and are paying a high price for their courage. But only a few are dedicated enough to blow the whistle in public - most leakers want to carry on with their normal lives and remain anonymous. Snowden did no doubt show the way for others, and there are already several who have tried to leak and remain anonymous. That’s not easy and the stakes are high! Which is underlined by the recent news about the feds discovering one leaker. But is it even possible to leak anonymously in this word that in many ways is worse than Orwell’s fictive surveillance nightmare? Let’s list some advice for the case you would like to leak by phone to a journalist. I guess not many of you readers will ever be in a situation where you need this. But read on, this is highly interesting anyway and tells a lot about how our digital word works. Ok, let’s assume the worst case. The secrets you want to leak affects US national security, which means that your enemy is powerful and can use top surveillance against you. Let’s also assume it’s info you have authorized access to. And that you want to talk on the phone to a journalist. Here’s some basic rules and hints that may prevent you from ending up behind bars. First you need to assess how many persons have access to the data. They will all be on a list of suspects, together with you. The shorter the list, the bigger the risk for you. Your mobile phone is a tracking device. The cell phone network knows what base station you are connected to at any time. Other services can record and store even GPS-accurate position data. All this is accessible to the agents and you must make sure it doesn’t reveal you. Needless to say, your own phone does not participate in this project. You need to find out who you should leak to. Never do this research from your own computer because your search history can reveal you. It leaves traces both in your computer and in your user profile at Google (unless you know what you are doing and use privacy tools properly). Do this research from a public computer. Make sure you have never logged in to any personal account from this computer. You need a “burner phone” to do the leaking. This is a phone that can’t be connected to your identity in any way. Here’s some rules for how to use it: It is always switched off with the battery removed when not in use. Just using the power button does not cut power from all parts of the device. It is never switched on in or close to your home. The agents can easily find out what base station it was connected to and turning it on near home can make you more suspected than others. It is never switched on in or close to your vehicle. Base station records for the phone may correlate with traffic cameras storing your registration plate. This is especially important if you have a modern car with a built-in data connection for service monitoring etc. Never user the burner for any other contacts. Even a single call to your spouse creates a record that ties you to the phone. Needless to say, never store any other info in the phone than what you need for this project. You always leave your own phone at home when going out to use the burner phone. Otherwise the agents can see that your own phone “happen” to be in the same base station when the burner is used. Leave your own phone turned ON at home when you go out with the burner. Otherwise you create a recognizable pattern where your own phone turns off and the burner turns on, and vice versa, in a synchronized manner. Leave any other wireless devices at home. Tablets, wireless mobile payment devices, anything else with a radio transmitter. Using a voice changer is necessary especially if the list of suspects is short. Assume that your calls can be recorded and your own voice checked against the recording. Get the burner phone. Scout for a dealer with old-looking or insufficient security cameras located not too close to your home. Remember that the agents may locate the shop where the burner phone was sold, get the security camera recording and compare against the list of suspects. Even better, ask someone else to buy the phone for you. Choose a cheap non-smart prepaid phone with removable battery. Pay cash and make sure you don’t reveal your identity to the seller in any way. Safely destroy any receipts and other paperwork related to the purchase. Think about where to store physical items that can tie you to the leak. Such items are the burner phone and related documents or data media. This is especially important if the list of suspects is short. Storing such items at home, at your workplace or in your vehicle will reveal you if the agents perform a search. Try to find some other place that is safe and can’t be tied to you. Now you are ready to contact the journalist. Be very rigid with the rules for how to use the burner phone. There are also some additional rules for this situation: Dress discreetly to avoid sticking out in surveillance camera footage. Be far enough from home when making the call. Turn the burner on, make the call and turn it off again right away. Avoid public places with surveillance cameras when the burner is on. Do not use your credit card during this trip. Pay cash for everything. Any other personal payment instruments, like public transportation payment cards, is a big no-no as well. You have to assume that journalists dealing with leaks are being watched constantly. Assume that the hunt is on as soon as you have made the first contact. Try to wrap up the project as quickly as possible and minimize the number of times you turn on the burner phone. When you are done, dispose all items related to the leak in a secure way. The trash can of your own house is NOT secure. Dump the phone in the river or put it in a public trash sack far enough from home. The truly paranoid leaker will break the phone with gloves on. The outer shell can contain fingerprints or traces of your DNA and the electronics the traceable phone ID. It’s good to make sure they end up in different places. Huh! That’s a lot to remember. Imagine, all this just for maintaining privacy when making a phone call! But you really need to do it like this if the big boys are after you and you still want to continue as a free citizen. I hope you never need to go through all this, and also that you do it right if you have to. Disclaimer. This text is mainly intended as a demonstration of how intrusive the surveillance society is today. We provide no guarantee that this will be enough to keep you out of jail. If you really plan to become a whistle blower, research the topic thoroughly and get familiar with other sources as well (but remember what I wrote about researching from your own computer).   Safe whistle blowing, Micke  

Oct 28, 2014
BY 
FBI

No, we do not need to carry black boxes

The recent statements from FBI director James Comey is yet another example of the authorities’ opportunistic approach to surveillance. He dislikes the fact that mobile operating systems from Google and Apple now come with strong encryption for data stored on the device. This security feature is naturally essential when you lose your device or if you are a potential espionage target. But the authorities do not like it as it makes investigations harder. What he said was basically that there should be a method for authorities to access data in mobile devices with a proper warrant. This would be needed to effectively fight crime. Going on to list some hated crime types, murder, child abuse, terrorism and so on. And yes, this might at first sound OK. Until you start thinking about it. Let’s translate Comey’s statement into ordinary non-obfuscated English. This is what he really said: “I, James Comey, director of FBI, want every person world-wide to carry a tracking device at all times. This device shall collect the owner’s electronic communications and be able to open cloud services where data is stored. The content of these tracking devices shall on request be made available to the US authorities. We don’t care if this weakens your security, and you shouldn’t care because our goals are more important than your privacy.” Yes, that’s what we are talking about here. The “tracking devices” are of course our mobile phones and other digital gadgets. Our digital lives are already accurate mirrors of our actual lives. Our gadgets do not only contain actual data, they are also a gate to the cloud services because they store passwords. Granting FBI access to mobile devices does not only reveal data on the device. It also opens up all the user’s cloud services, regardless of if they are within US jurisdiction or not. In short. Comey want to put a black box in the pocket of every citizen world-wide. Black boxes that record flight data and communications are justified in cockpits, not in ordinary peoples’ private lives. But wait. What if they really could solve crimes this way? Yes, there would probably be a handful of cases where data gathered this way is crucial. At least enough to make fancy PR and publically show how important it is for the authorities to have access to private data. But even proposing weakening the security of commonly and globally used operating systems is a sign of gross negligence against peoples’ right to security and privacy. The risk is magnitudes bigger than the upside. Comey was diffuse when talking about examples of cases solved using device data. But the history is full of cases solved *without* data from smart devices. Well, just a decade ago we didn’t even have this kind of tracking devices. And the police did succeed in catching murderers and other criminals despite that. You can also today select to not use a smartphone, and thus drop the FBI-tracker. That is your right and you do not break any laws by doing so. Many security-aware criminals are probably operating this way, and many more would if Comey gets what he wants. So it’s very obvious that the FBI must have capability to investigate crime even without turning every phone into a black box. Comey’s proposal is just purely opportunistic, he wants this data because it exists. Not because he really needs it.   Safe surfing, Micke    

Oct 17, 2014
BY 
FB archive

Your digital memories – will they vanish or persist?

If you like sailing and tall ships, I can recommend this podcast about Pam Bitterman’s book Sailing to the far horizon. It’s a great story about the last years of the community-operated ship Sofia, covering both a lot of happy sailing and the ship’s sad end in the early eighties. But this is not about hippies on a ship, it’s about how we record and remember our lives. In the podcast Pam tells us how the book was made possible by her parents saving her letters home. Perhaps they had a hunch that this story will be written down one day. Going on to state that e-mails and phone calls wouldn’t have been saved that way. That’s a very interesting point that should make us think. At least it made me think about what we will remember about our lives in, say, twenty years? We collect more info about what we are doing than ever before. We shoot digital pictures all the time and post status updates on Facebook. We are telling the world where we are, what we are doing and what we feel. Maybe in a way that is shallower than letters home, but we sample our lives at a very granular rate. The real question is however how persistent this data is? If we later realize we have experienced something unique enough to write a book about, have our digital life left enough traces to support us? Pam wrote the book about Sofia some twenty years later. A twenty year old paper is still young, but that’s an eternity in the digital world. Will you still be on the same social media service? Do you still have the same account or have you lost it. Does the service even exist? And what about your e-mails, have you saved them? How are your digital photos archived? You may even have cleaned up yourself to fit everything into a cheaper cloud account. Here’s something to keep in mind about retaining your digital life. Realize the value of your personal records. You may fail to see the value in single Facebook posts, but they may still form a valuable wholeness. If you save it you can choose to use it or not in the future. If you lose it you have no choice. Make sure you don’t lose access to your mail, social media and cloud storage accounts. That would force you to start fresh, which usually means data loss. Always register a secondary mail address in the services. That will help you recover if you forget the password. Use a password manager to avoid losing the password in the first place. Redundancy is your friend. Do not store important data in a single location. The ideal strategy is to store your files both on a local computer and in a cloud account. It provides redundancy and also stores data in several geographically separated locations. This is easy with younited because you can set it to automatically back up selected folders. Mail accounts have limited capacity and you can’t keep stuff forever. Don’t delete your correspondence. Check your mail client instead for a function that archives your mail to local storage. Check your social media service for a way to download a copy of your stuff. In Facebook you can currently find this function under Settings / General. It’s good to do this regularly, and you should at least do it if you plan to close your account and go elsewhere. Migrate your data when switching to a new computer or another cloud service. It might be tricky and take some time, but it is worth it. Do not see it as a great opportunity to start fresh and get rid of "old junk". If you are somewhat serious about digital photography, you should get familiar with DAM. That means Digital Asset Management. This book is a good start. Pam did not have a book in mind when she crossed the Pacific. But she was lucky and her parents helped her retain the memories. You will not be that lucky. Don’t expect your friends on Facebook to archive posts for you, you have to do it yourself. You may not think you’ll ever need the stuff, just like Pam couldn’t see the book coming when onboard Sofia. But you never know what plans the future has for you. When you least expect it, you might find yourself in a developing adventure. Make yourself a favor and don’t lose any digital memories. Safe surfing, Micke  

Oct 13, 2014
BY