Your Electronic Footprints

I recently had a client send me a news item from a local TV station.  The story was about how GPS-enabled smartphones automatically geotag the pictures they took.  Those geotags, a few bits of longitudinal and latitudinal information that indicate where the picture was taken, embedded in the picture’s metatdata, then presumably followed the pictures as they were uploaded to Facebook, Flickr, or wherever else pictures go these days. 

The piece was couched in the fear mongering that TV news does so well, portraying the issue as a dire threat to our children – with suggestions that strangers online would track them down to where the pictures were taken – where they lived, where they played, where they ate. Now certainly this is an issue, but if you let pictures of your children be circulated to strangers on the internet in the first place, you probably have bigger problems to deal with than just the metadata issue.  Google “privacy settings.”

Fear mongering aside though, there is certainly a privacy issue associated with various electronic activities.  And as people smarter than me spend time figuring out how electronics are going to make our lives more fun (for us) and profitable (for them), the proliferation of new technologies and new applications won’t be slowing down any time soon.  The legal advice is therefore just this – be as aware as you can be about the entire electronic footprint that you are leaving when you interact with technology.

In our practice we exploit, er, leverage, the intersection of ignorance and technology to its full advantage all the time.  We review metatdata in documents to determine version histories or to see which author originally drafted a precedent.  We use social media to gather public information about evil-doers. We sometimes look at the date stamp and country of origin information in e-mail headers. We may even track the occasional IP address if we have to.

The point is, if you’re our client, be aware of the issue.  Be skeptical of new technologies and new uses for old technologies – check them out before you use them.  And if you’re not our client, keep on being stupid.

And I should note that Facebook (currently the biggest online photo repository on the planet) automatically strips the sort of metadata from pictures that indicate where it was taken as of the time of the writing of this post, so wandering gangs of pedophiles will probably not be using it as a tool to steal your children – Twitter and external-load sites like Photobucket though are fair game.  Somehow the news story mentioned above missed that fact.

Scott R. Young

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