Internet Warnings: Cell Phone Camera Risks


You may have seen a warning circulating via social media recently about the dangers of taking and posting photos with camera phones.

This particular warning is pretty similar to many that come along regularly, and happens to be pretty much true. (As opposed to the many, many, warning notices that end up being mostly or even completely false. Even though this particular one is based on fact, though, the prevalence and implications of the risk can end up being hard to really discern the way that the threat is presented.

Here are some issues with warnings like this:

1. They may not be timely. The linked video in the circulating warning turns out to be almost four years old. The issue and related facts are still valid, but this sort of warning gives the impression that this is a new threat when it is has been in existence in its current form for at least five years.

2. They exaggerate one aspect of an issue beyond what is realistic. The news stories focus on how camera phones can embed location data in the photo file that could then be used to identify the location where it is taken. But what the news stories neglect to cover is why and under what circumstances such stalking is likely to take place. Certainly it is true that someone could be targeted completely at random, but that is not what is seen in most accounts of the abuses of this type of technology. It is much more common for someone to be targeted specifically, and often this is based on prior relationships.

3. They don’t mention the broader concepts of security online that can add to or reduce online risks far beyond this one issue. In particular, being careful about what you post online in general, and what security settings use use for the various social media sites that you visit. You can take steps to better secure your online presence, and get a better sense of the relative risks online that you need to consider. Stay Safe Online is an organization that provides a good set of tools and information about security online, as well as helping people understand that various dimensions of security online. Google has a pretty good overview of online security as well.  It’s also true that some very popular sites (yes, Facebook!) change things often enough that you need to check and update your settings regularly to ensure that you maintain your desired level of security. By the way, as far as Facebook security goes,  Lifehacker’s guide is regularly updated and a great place to start. Even with good settings, one fact remains: the only way to have something stay absolutely secure is to never post it online in the first place.

So I suggest that the next time you have a warning forwarded to you that implores you to “share it with everyone you know!”, that you check it out first. Snopes is a pioneer in this area and has good references for most of their articles. also has good urban legends and hoax reference pages. There several others, as well. An interesting side note is that there was a forwarded e-mail a few years ago that sought to discredit Snopes, and the email itself ended up discredited by another source.


If you want to disable location data posting from your phone, here are the steps:

On Android:
Open camera app
Open “Settings”
Scroll down to “GPS” and select “off”

On iPhone:
Go to “Settings”
Under that, Go to “General”
Under that, Go to “Location Services”
Under that, go to “Camera” and select “Off”

On Windows Phone:
Select “Settings”
Under that, select “Applications”
Under that, select “Pictures and Camera”
Turn “Include GPS Data” to “Off”

But more importantly:

1. Check out warnings before you pass them along

2. Know the basic steps to be safer online

3. Consider both the big picture and specific apps and networks you frequent

4. Be careful about what you post and where

5. Limit and supervise your children’s activity online

That approach will be a lot more useful than just chasing the latest warning to get forwarded your way.

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