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Dispatches from Nerd Camp I


That’s right. I’m traveling again, this time to beautiful Bloomington, Indiana to study network analysis methods with the InterUniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research. More on what I’m learning later in the week when I’ve mastered the jargon well enough to translate it back into English, and the concepts well enough to say something meaningful about some actual networks I’m studying.

For now, I just wanted to call readers’ attention to a story you might have missed last week on the perils of information networks: this NYTimes piece on the perils of geo-tagging in photos. Here’s the hook:

When Adam Savage, host of the popular science program “MythBusters,” posted a picture on Twitter of his automobile parked in front of his house, he let his fans know much more than that he drove a Toyota Land Cruiser. Embedded in the image was a geotag, a bit of data providing the longitude and latitude of where the photo was taken. Hence, he revealed exactly where he lived. And since the accompanying text was “Now it’s off to work,” potential thieves knew he would not be at home.

As the article documents, geotags may be embedded in all sorts of digital media we send and post through social networking technologies, leaving a
traceable footprint of your geolocation.

Security experts and privacy advocates have recently begun warning about the potential dangers of geotags, which are embedded in photos and videos taken with GPS-equipped smartphones and digital cameras. Because the location data is not visible to the casual viewer, the concern is that many people may not realize it is there; and they could be compromising their privacy, if not their safety, when they post geotagged media online.

“I’d say very few people know about geotag capabilities,” said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, “and consent is sort of a slippery slope when the only way you can turn off the function on your smartphone is through an invisible menu that no one really knows about.”

Good to know. If you need help disabling yours you can go to ICanStalkU.com for help. But for another perspective worth considering, consider this quote by Hasan Elahi, whose website TrackingTranscience.net has been chronicling his hour-to-hour life through geotagged photos as a protection mechanism against government surveillance since his detention under the Patriot Act in 2002:

“I’ve discovered that the best way to protect your privacy is to give it away,” he says, grinning as he sips his venti Black Eye. Elahi relishes upending the received wisdom about surveillance. The government monitors your movements, but it gets things wrong. You can monitor yourself much more accurately. Plus, no ambitious agent is going to score a big intelligence triumph by snooping into your movements when there’s a Web page broadcasting the Big Mac you ate four minutes ago in Boise, Idaho. “It’s economics,” he says. “I flood the market.”

You can read more about Elahi in Alberto Barabasi’s Bursts.

Of course, Elahi is talking about government and the Times reporter is talking about thieves and stalkers. Still, food for thought.

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