As a technology expert and someone who is a stickler for details, few things get on my nerves more than when I read an article or watch a TV news story presenting a technology topic with incomplete or incorrect information. Often I assume that reporters covering a technology subject are simply confused (as most people are with complicated technology concepts), but sometimes I wonder if stories are rushed to publication with little regard for accuracy. The problem is that most professional news outlets do not employ their own technology fact checkers. Reporters often will cite technology experts in their reporting, but when the story is finished it seems like no one is checking the final work for technical accuracy or rational conclusions. It is very easy for a reporter who is not a technology expert to present some facts in a story, yet arrive at conclusions that are overly simplistic or flat-out wrong. One recent example highlights my frustration.
A TV news story with an accompanying on-line article covering the topic of Geo-Stalking was recently aired on a local news channel. The basic premise of the story is actually informative: it is possible for people to gather information about someone, including where they live or work and the places they visit, by using the data in their social media postings. The story even includes a handful of accurate technology facts and interviews a security consultant. However, the story as presented makes a couple of crucial incorrect assertions and the recommendation made for how people can protect their privacy is more likely to cause grief than actually protect them. I could go into a great level of detail nitpicking the inaccurate sections of the article, but it’s suffice to quickly point out a couple of mistakes.
The story contends that pictures posted on social media have GPS geolocation information embedded in them and that is how geo-stalkers can track others. It even goes into detail describing the EXIF data format where GPS information can be embedded inside a photo file. The story claims that based on a picture tweeted by the reporter, the security consultant was able to read the EXIF data to get the GPS information and know exactly where she was. The problem with the article’s assertion is that while GPS information can indeed be stored in EXIF data, the simple fact is that when posting to Twitter, this data is stripped out. It only took a very quick Google search to confirm this information directly from Twitter themselves: “Twitter does not store the Exif data from your photo. It is not available to those who view your photo on Twitter.”
Now it is certainly possible for a user to intentionally tag their location when they tweet, regardless of whether they are posting a picture or not. It then is true that data can be used by geo-stalkers. It is also possible to use other sorts of tools to piece together information to on a person that does not require the use of geotagging data. So the premise of the article is correct that geo-stalking is something people should be concerned about. However, it is completely incorrect to insinuate that EXIF/GPS data is available through postings on Twitter.
The security consultant was quoted, “When you make a post on most social media, you actually embed geolocation.” The way the story is written, it makes it sound like he meant that all posts contain geolocation and/or EXIF data. Another quick search points out that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and most popular social media platforms all strip out EXIF data of the pictures they post. Again, it is possible to intentionally geotag one’s postings on most social media platforms, but this is a very different situation that the scenario the news story presents, which I believe is taken out of context from what the security consultant intended. It borders on fear mongering to suggest that every picture someone posts on social media automatically shares their GPS location with the world.
The story concludes with a recommendation on how to stop sending out geolocation data. It describes how to turn off location services on iPhone and Android devices which would in fact disable one’s smartphone from providing GPS data to any or all apps. Yes, this would prevent Twitter and other social media apps from using geolocation data. However, this advice is overkill in my opinion. First, as I described above, most social media platforms do not store EXIF/GPS data in any photos posted. One must intentionally tag their location on most platforms in order for anyone to have geolocation information about them in a post. Second, by disabling all location services as suggested, this will cripple some functions of a user’s smartphone that most people may want correctly working. Location services are required to use navigation apps for directions or using an app like Yelp to find a restaurant nearby. Plus I believe most people like having GPS data embedded in their photos for their own personal use. Disabling location services stops that from working. I contend that disabling location services would cause users more headaches than actually doing anything to protect them. Therefore the recommendation given by this article is simply not beneficial and could actually be a disservice to their audience.
Unfortunately there are many stories I’ve seen like this from otherwise respected news sources that ultimately are just letting their audience down. Combined with all the hoax stories about technology, there is a lot of misinformation out there that ends up scaring users and dampening their enthusiasm of using technology for their benefit. So what can you do?
When you see a news story covering a technology topic that concerns you, don’t assume the report is completely accurate. Talk to your trusted technology advisor to ensure that the story is factually correct and arrives at valid conclusions. If you don’t have a trusted technology advisor, you would do well to find one, but if nothing else feel free to share that story with me so I can evaluate it for you. At the very least, please don’t share a story until you’ve had it fact-checked as to not contribute to the spread of misinformation.
Also, put pressure on media sources when they publish incorrect technology stories. Let them know you are not happy they are making mistakes and encourage them to consult with a technology expert to review their finished stories before they publish them. I’m certainly happy to help any media outlets fact-check their technology stories before they publish – or else I’ll need to keep fact-checking their stories after they go live!