Geotagging

WATCHING YOU: Smartphone user Crystal Thompson, with Joao Pereira Silva Netto, is unaware of geotagging. Inset: A person’s movement tracked over two weeks. Source: PerthNow

by Anthony DeCeglie  The Sunday Times December 03, 2011

 

FACEBOOK would be used to solve crimes as part of a new Big Brother approach to policing.

Edith Cowan University scientists have created a database that tracks the movements of West Australians by collecting information on where they live, work and socialise from the posts and photos they upload on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

The database, which relies on a process known as geotagging, can store information for years that reveals movement patterns of individuals. It shows also who comes and goes from a location regularly.

Lead researcher Peter Hannay said the database could stretch back two years and could provide vital information for police officers looking for witnesses to a particular crime or to verify a suspect’s alibis.

WA Police had shown interest in the technology. “We’ve been building this up over the past two years so we’ve got quite a substantial data set now,” he said.

“If a crime was committed, police could use the geotagged information to identify who was in the area.

“Police could analyse data to find those whose daily routines fit a certain profile.”

Mr Hannay said there were no limits on how long or how much information the database could store.

“We’re nowhere near storage capacity and the way storage capacity is growing every year there is no foreseeable point at which we would need to start culling our database,” he said.

But geotagging could be dangerous in the wrong hands. Many internet users were unaware how easily they could be tracked through their web posts.

Particularly frightening was how a stalker or pedophile could use geotags to prey on young victims.

“Many people have little idea they are leaking this sort of information,” he said. “If a user makes publicly accessible, geotagged posts, it is relatively easy to identify their home address, workplace, local shopping centre, hobbies and interests and their favourite bars and restaurants.

“If someone is making one or two updates a day, or 5-10 a week, and does this for a couple of years then someone can build a very precise picture of their movements and predict where they are likely to be at a particular time.”

Crystal Thompson, 19, of Joondalup, was unaware of the extent she could be tracked through her posts on social networking sites.

The marketing student said she would ensure she turned off geotagging functions when she used sites such as Facebook.

TIPS FOR AVOIDING GEOTAGGING

– Turn off all geo-location and check-in options on your social networks

– Turn off the GPS on your smartphone, tablet or other device

– Disable the geotagging of photos in applications like Twitter and Flickr

Follow Anthony DeCeglie on Twitter: @anthdeceglie

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