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Photo's hidden data holds secrets - your exact location

Photo's hidden data holds secrets - your exact location
photo courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words – but that's just on the surface. What's hidden inside your smartphone photos could be worth much more.

Without even realizing it, you could be sharing much more than your fun vacation memories online. You could be sharing the exact location you took the photo.

That's because any photos you take with your smartphone are "geotagged" with EXIF data. This means the GPS from your phone attaches a location, time and date to your photos automatically.

What's the problem? A photo's location, time and date can tell anyone that you're not home. If the wrong person finds out you are out of town, chaos could ensue.

Just ask this former NFL star. A group of teens found out on Twitter that he wasn't home for a weekend and threw a huge party at his mansion, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Even worse, burglars routinely use information like this to target victims.

Your kids or grandkids could be sharing where their home, school, and favorite hangout spots are. There are plenty of terrible people who love having that kind of information.

Of course, these are worst-case scenarios, but the threat is real. Luckily there are a few steps you can take to remove this information from your photos.

How to stop your photos from revealing secrets

The best way to stop geotagging is to make sure the information is never added to your photos in the first place. To do this, you need to block your phone from using GPS or Wi-Fi to attach a location to your photos.

To do this on Android gadgets, go to Settings >> Location Services and turn the location services off.

For your iPhone, go to Settings >> Privacy >> Location Services. You can turn Location Services off for everything, or you can turn it off for just the Camera app. It's a good idea to turn location services off for your social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, too.

In Windows Phone, go the Settings app, tap Location and turn off location services. Or for specific apps, go to Settings >> Applications and select an app then turn off "Use my location."

How to remove existing location data

Unfortunately, turning off location services changes how some apps work. For example, apps like Google Maps are useless without GPS.

Some apps will tell you to turn these services back on when they need it, but not all do. If you do turn it back on, you might forget to turn it off.

Plus, you probably have hundreds of photos you've already taken that might be geotagged. While some sites, such as Facebook, take out this information for you when you upload photos, you don't want to guess which sites do or don't.

Instead, you can wipe the geolocation data from your photos with an app like Pixelgarde. This app will strip any private information from your photos so you can share them safely.

On computers, Windows has a built-in method to remove a photo's EXIF data. Just right-click the photo and choose Properties. In the details tab, click the "Remove Properties and Personal Information" button.

If you're using a Mac, the best way to ditch EXIF data is with XnView. It lets you rip the EXIF data out of photos in batches, instead of doing it one at a time. The program works for Windows users, too.

It's not just smartphone photos

Geotagging isn't just a concern with smartphones and tablets. Some newer cameras, like the Panasonic Lumix and Nikon Coolpix, have models with GPS data built in.

On a computer, you can check a photo's metadata with XnView or MET Picture Box. This will show you if it will be a problem to post. If it is, you can wipe the information.

Not all geotagging is bad …

The metadata in pictures isn't all bad, though. Some people like to use geotagging to organize travel photos. In fact, photo organizers like Picasa and Adobe's Lightroom have a built-in mapping function that uses location data.

Be careful if you do post geotagged photos to a social network or blog. Don't post anything that could give someone information about where you live or work. If you have children, it's best not to geotag any pictures of them, either.

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