Are my cell phone pictures really stalking me?

There is a not-so-great bit of reporting going around lately that's designed to warn people about GPS tracking capabilities on mobile phones. Basically, the story points out that cell phones today are capable of embedding your location into photos. The story suggests that such data can later be extracted by would-be predators who are interested in finding your location. To support their findings the reporters identify the location of a young child using a photo posted online. They then go to the mother's home and inform her that the photo contains the exact coordinates of the child's bedroom. All of this, of course, sounds really scary if you are a parent who is used to posting pictures of your kids on sites like Facebook. One friend recently became so fearful that she removed all of her photos from her social network site. So it seemed to me that this might be a good time to elaborate where the media hasn't been so clear.


Recent Report on Cell Phone Tracking Data


GeoCoordinates and EXIF Data

The actual facts, about what happens to your photos are a little more complicated than the story would make it appear, and in all likelihood what you've posted to your social media site doesn't have any location data in it, though your cell phone might. Let me explain.


Image Taken with Samsung Galaxy S3

It is true that most cell phones today do have location sensing capabilities that use geotagging. This simply means that your cell phone is capable of tracking you, and that it can assign a location to various content that you create. This feature is used for all sorts of reasons. It's used to locate you in the event of a 911 call. It's what allows you to use your navigational maps on your phone. And for those FourSquare addicts, it's what helps you become the Mayor of some small town in the middle of Arkansas. 

It is also true that most cell phone photos contain this information. The information we're talking about is called a GeoCoordinate and it is stored in a photo in what is called EXIF data. While that may sound like another language, it's just a fancy way of saying that your photos contain information that you can't see, but that a computer can read. Take the picture to the right, for example. This is a photo that I took with my cell phone while fishing on the Maumee River near Toledo, Oh. When I took the image, my cell phone automatically added my exact location. This data is visible in the "properties " of the photo. Below is an example of how the data looks when you look at the photo's properties in Windows.

How to see if your phone is tracking you

If you have a Windows system you can find the data by right clicking on the photo and selecting "Properties" then the "Details" tab. Scroll down until you see the GPS coordinates. To find the information on a Mac, open the photo in Preview Mode. Then press the "Command" key and the letter "i" to open the inspector. Then click the "i" tab and select the EXIF or GPS option. If no coordinates are listed using either of these methods then your phone isn't recording a location.


Okay, so what does this data do?

GPSIf your phone shows something like the image on the left with both latitude and longitude recording a location, then congratulations, you've got GeoCoordinates! These coordinates essentially record the exact location that you were standing on the planet at the time the image was taken.

In other words, every time you snap a picture, your phone is programmed to record your location and embed that location into the properties of that photo. It does this by talking to cell phone towers, wireless access points and satellite signals that are all around you. All of this data is used to pin point a pretty accurate location of where you are standing.

If you have such coordinates then it's pretty easy for a person to find out where you were just by simply checking the properties of the photo. Journalists should be particularly aware of the existence of this data when taking pictures of sensitive subjects. For example, last year found itself in an embarrassing situation when journalists at Vice uploaded a photo of John McAfee's, who was in hiding at the time. The location wasn't so secret once a blogger discovered and extracted McAfee's geocoordinates on the web. Soon after he had a visit from the police, and no doubt a Vice reporter just lost a lot of credibility.

To illustrate how this works, I've taken the coordinates from the photo above and I've entered them into a Google map search. You'll notice that coordinates in the map are the same as the latitude and longitude listed in the photo properties above. The location is so accurate that it identifies the exact location where I was standing in the river. The fishing there, by the way, was pretty good, though I'd suggest you show up early if you want to give it a try. It's shoulder-to-shoulder when the fishing's hot….but I digress.

View ImageGPS in a larger map

So should I be concerned?

So far we've seen that your cell phone is capable of recording your location, and that it is so accurate that it can locate your whereabouts within a few feet of where you are standing. Sounds pretty scary right? After all, we've all seen Enemy of the State where Gene Hackman is forced to flee from the U.S. government and blow up his hideout simply because Will Smith made a phone call. We know what the government does with this kind of data, and we know it always ends badly for the little guy.

But before you put on your tin foil hat, delete all your social media posts, and book a one way ticket to Tajikistan, take a breath. That isn't the whole story. It's very possible that your photos are safe.

While it is true that your cell phone photos probably have your data, it isn't true that uploading those images to the web automatically makes your location available. A recent study found that Facebook and Twitter automatically strip this data away from your photos once they've been uploaded to your social media sites. Instagram's policy is to turn off geotagging unless you opt in to the service. In other words, when a person downloads a photo you've posted to one of these sites, then the geocoordinates have already been removed. For you that means that even if some random creeper got ahold of your photos, he couldn't use your photos to track you.

However, that isn't the case with every social media site. For example, the same study above noted that Google Plus does include location. And if you're hosting images in FlickR then chances are that your geocoordinates are available for download. The same is true for cloud based services like Google Drive and Drop Box. Both of these sites simply make a copy of your original photos, so if the data is there, then it is accessible to any person that has access to your photos.

So there you have it, a basic primer on how GPS data works. While it might make an enticing headline to claim that social media sites are opening you up to privacy concerns, in this case, that's not the whole story. The best advice I can give you is to know the policies of the sites your posting to. It may be in the future that social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram decide to include GPS data in your images, but for now, you can sleep soundly knowing that your photo data is safe.

Backpack Journalism 101:
Using the iPhone for shooting and editing video content

In April I traveled with members of the BGSU SPJ student chapter to the  Regional Conference in Dayton. At the conference Glenn Hartong of the Cincinnati Enquirer shared with us some of the mobile tools and techniques being used by Gannett reporters. The Enquirer recently equipped all of its reporters with iPhone 5s and now encourages them to shoot and edit video from the field as well as report live when it's appropriate. Below is a summary of some of the ideas that Glenn shared. If you're thinking of using an iPhone, iPad, iPod or some other mobile device for backpack journalism, then several of these suggestions should help get you started.

Before you go out in the field

Reporters use video today to cover all sorts of topics from breaking news to compelling feature stories. For daily reporting, you will often shoot short, 30-120 second clips that can be included with breaking news stories and other daily coverage. If you're shooting video for a breaking news story, then remember you'll likely be uploading it to the newsroom from your reporting location and/or pushing it out to your social media almost immediately. You'll be competing with bloggers, television stations and other newspapers that are all trying to get the scoop first. As a result, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the typical workflow in these situations. During fast-paced news events, here's what might typically be expected:

Step 1. Write a few graphs about the story as it breaks.

Step 2. Use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and/or other social media to tell your audience about the event.

Step 3. Do quick edits on the video and upload the video and the story to the newsroom to be posted on the website.

Step 4. Go back to the newsroom for finer editing for future multimedia packages and/or deeper content.


When you're in the field, you'll also want to think about what types of connectivity are available to you before you go. If you're using an iPod and you don't have a wireless connection, then you might consider purchasing a 4GHotspot that will allow you to access the web over a 4G network. There are several mobile hotspot options. This video will familiarize you with how it works and what you'll need to purchase. In addition, if you're going to be reporting from a place where 3G is your only connectivity option, then shooting lots of high resolution video can take a great deal of time to transfer across the web. In this case it's best to remember the old rule- 'audiences will tolerate poor video, but they won't listen to bad audio.' As a result, your first goal should be to make sure that you have captured some good quality sound. That's not to say that good video doesn't matter. If you find yourself in a situation where you have great connectivity, and you can upload high quality HD video quickly to the newsroom, then you should definitely do so. Otherwise, if connectivity is limited, you might consider rendering out a lower resolution video (e.g. 320×240 px) that can be uploaded quickly. You can always replace the video with a higher quality one once you get back to the newsroom.

Equipment and software

It's important to remember that the iPhone 5 shoots video in native 1080p resolution. Depending on your connectivity and the length of footage you may want to use a few apps to "downgrade" your video content to a lower resolution.  FiLMiC Pro is a useful app that gives you lots of control over your video. Among its many features, you can adjust the resolution, include GPS tagging, and frame rate. If you plan on doing some editing, then another useful app that is pretty user-friendly is iMovie. While editing video in the field on either an iPhone or iPad is going to give you less control than what you might have with more sophisticated software packages like Final Cut, using these apps will help you get the news out quickly when time is limited.

The Fostex AR-4i and the AR-101 (depending on whether you're using an iPhone 4 or 5)


Fostex AR101

are two other handy tools for mobile reporting. The Fostex connects directly to your iPhone and uses a monopod-like grip for easy shooting. Two microphones can be adjusted so that they point in both the direction of the reporter and the interviewee for better sound capture. And if you're interested in connecting to an external mic, B&H Photo has put together a nice package complete with lav mics that connect to the Fostex line inputs.

If your iPhone is going to be your only option for shooting, you might also want to consider an Olloclip. The Olloclip essentially works as a lens system for your iPhone, allowing you to do a bit more with creative photographic techniques such as fish-eye photography, macro and wide-angle shooting.

Shooting live events

You may find yourself in a situation where shooting live is critical. Several apps are available for such occasions. and Livestream have partnered together to offer options to stream events live. In addition, Ustream is another app that allows you to stream live from their site, once you've set up a Ustream account.

What to shoot

Not every story is going to need video. Let's face it, some stories just aren't big enough or exciting enough. So when you plan your stories, you should consider whether the video you're about to shoot is worth the time. Online videos serve two purposes. First, as a reporter, you should be shooting video that tells a meaningful story. Video coverage is going to add depth and interest to your story. Furthermore, the content you shoot should complement the story that you've written for web rather than merely repeat it. Video, however, also has a practical function for a news organization. Advertisers interested in posting banner and video ads on a news website are interested in knowing the number of people that visit a website and the amount of time they spend on it. By using video on your site, you provide additional incentives for audiences to stay longer, and your video may be another space used for advertising revenue. All of this suggests that video on any news site should not just fill a news hole, it should provide additional content that audiences would want to invest the time in watching.

So when you're thinking about including a video with your story, here are a few things you might consider:

  • Remember that light and noise are important. That means that you're not likely to shoot video in dark and noisy places. If the story you are covering takes place on a busy street or in a dimly lit theater, you're likely not going to get footage that is worth shooting.
  • Choose videos that have compelling characters. One way to tell whether you have a story worth shooting is to think about the people you're going to interview. No one wants to listen to dull, boring people drone on and on about a topic, but if your subjects have interesting ideas or interesting personalities, then they might make a good choice for video content. Recently, Charles Ramsey made the news for his role in freeing three young women from a home in Cleveland. Within hours of this video, Ramsey's comments received millions of hits on YouTube. What makes this footage so compelling is Ramsey's personality and no-nonsense way of speaking. When you have subjects like this, then you might want to consider using video to capture some of that personality that isn't so readily captured with words.
  • Sometimes we use video in news reporting because our audience likes to hear the information straight from the horses mouth. In other words, we might choose to shoot some video because our interviewees bring a certain authority to our story. For example, there are often times in reporting when the information is best heard by a public official. The words of officials and experts carry weight, and sometimes that can add to your content. You might for example, include a few seconds of a city councilman talking about a proposed city ordinance, or a police officer discussing the events that led up to an arrest.
  • Sometimes video footage is worth shooting because a reporter can take an audience somewhere that they can't normally go. This might be the inside of a factory, a crime scene, or maybe the backstage of a concert. Whatever it might be, audiences appreciate it when the reporter takes the time to share the adventure with them.

The mobile phone is like the Swiss Army knife of reporting. Its portability, its ease in networking with audiences, and its ability to record photos, audio and video all make it a must-have tool for any backpack journalists. While it is true that the basic principles of good storytelling haven't changed, learning to use the new tools that are at your disposal can enhance your stories and make the online news experience more meaningful for your audiences.