Thanks to geotags and GPS coordinates, your innocent photo posts could make you a victim to the latest cyber stalking crime
By Kate Ashford
Bonnie Russell was having lunch with a friend in a pub near Detroit when she got a wake-up call—one that actually came on her cell. A few minutes earlier, she had used the phone to snap a photo of her lunchtime combo: "A lot of seriously unhealthy fried crap" she called it when she posted it on Twitter with the wry title "Lunch of champions." She received a tweet back from a total stranger who had found her public Twitter feed and used it to track down the neighborhood where she was having lunch at that very moment.
Lucky for Bonnie, the stranger was information security engineer Ben Jackson, cofounder of ICanStalkU.com, a watchdog website that alerts Twitter users about the dangers of geotags. Bonnie, 40, was shocked—she works in digital marketing and considers herself a pretty educated user of technology. "I'm very concerned with what kind of data I share with the public," she says. "And I thought I had disabled any functions on my phone and Twitter that might broadcast my location."
Well, she thought wrong. Geotags are GPS coordinates that can be added to digital files—most commonly photos—and used to pinpoint your location by as close as a 10-foot radius. Many GPS enabled smartphones embed these tags in photographs automatically, and you don't even know they're there. But once you share those photos, someone else can find out where you are...or aren't.
Sometimes that's a good thing: GPS technology was developed by the military to find soldiers who were lost in battle, and it allows 911 operators to locate callers and send help—that's why every cell phone made after January 1, 2006, is required by law to be GPS enabled. But experts have become concerned that geotags could be used for more sinister purposes.
Already there has been an uptick in other types of social-network related crime. Last March, for instance, the house of an Indiana woman was robbed after she updated her Facebook status to say that she and her fiance were going out for the night. In September, New Hampshire police busted a burglary ring that targeted people based on the locations they posted on their profiles. And a recent Justice Department report found that a quarter of stalking cases in the United States involve cyber stalking, and one in 13 victims reported that GPS technology or another version of electronic monitoring was used. (Forty-seven states have now made it illegal to stalk or harass using electronic forms of communication.)
In extreme cases, women have been stalked via their GPS-enabled mobile phones. That's what happened to Louise,* 32, from New Mexico, who discovered that an abusive ex-boyfriend was tracking her via her cell phone. "His car was showing up everywhere I went," she says. This type of cyber stalking is usually done via phone, by someone the victim knows—maybe an ex or a roommate. But it is possible to track someone via cell phone remotely, without ever meeting them, if you're technologically savvy. There are even apps that will turn a cell phone into a James Bond-like spy device, allowing hackers to hear your conversations, read your texts, and generally ride along as you live your life.