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geolocation

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Most social media users are unaware that their social media activity is being tracked in numerous ways that they never see. Everything you create on an electronic device is tagged with data about its creation. This is called metadata. It is often defined as "data about data," but it is far more than that vague description. It includes information such as file size, time and date of creation, user account info, and edits. Metadata can also include the exact geographic location of the user. Longitude and latitude information can be precise to within a few feet. When you take a picture with your smartphone, the default setting records the location where the picture was taken. When you post that picture on social media, it is not difficult to find out exactly where it was taken. With Google Maps, you can instantly see a street level view of the location and compare it to the picture.

​In 2016, ISIS ran a social media campaign posting pictures, taken by its followers, around Europe. A group of resourceful social media users seized the opportunity and used geolocation metadata attached to the pictures to locate exactly where each was taken. In some cases it revealed where the photographers lived. The information was passed on to the police.  

​Another real life example occurred in 2012 with anti-virus software developer turned fugitive John McAfee. McAfee was hiding out in Guatemala when he decided to give a secret interview to the website Vice. They promised to keep McAfee's location a secret but made the mistake of posting a smartphone photo with the geolocation metadata still attached. It revealed exactly where McAfee was hiding. You would expect that a software icon and an investigative journalist would know better, but they didn't.

Most apps also have geolocation. They justify it by saying it helps them find the data you seek based on your geographic location. While this is true, it is done mainly so they can collect user data on you and target appropriate local ads. It may be convenient for your weather app to know where you are, but it is not essential that other social media websites do. A cyberstalker can find a social media user in real time if they are on an app broadcasting geolocation.

The good news is that you can erase location data from photographs, and most apps allow you to turn off geolocation. You may have to look around in the settings, but it can be done. For each app determine what is more important, keeping your location anonymous or having the app quickly providing local information. If you turn geolocation off, you may have to enter your zip code or allow the app to use your location on a case by case basis.

Parents should make sure that geolocation is turned off for all their children's' apps to make it more difficult for pedophiles to find them. Also instruct children not to inadvertently reveal their locations to strangers on social media.​



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