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Issue #518: June 25 – July 1, 2017

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Q: I have some digital pictures that I want to use on a website. Before I publish them, I want to remove the embedded location information from them. The pictures are on a Windows 10 computer. Can you tell me how to make the pictures safe for publication?

– Carl H.
Baker, Florida

A: I think quite a few of my readers might not even realize that there is embedded information in their digital pictures, Carl.  So, before I answer your question, please bear with me while I give a little lesson on metadata.

In this modern era when practically everything has been digitized and computerized, media such as digital photographs, audio files and movies are nothing more than files of computer data.  When processed by the right program, these data are reconstituted into a facsimile of the visual or audio image from which they were created.  Many of the contemporary formats of digital storage support the inclusion of metadata, which is to say, data about the data that is contained in the files.  In .mp3 music files, this metadata is called the ID3 tag, and it contains information about the title and artist, publication date, track length, and much more.  Certain digital photo formats contain metadata called Exif, which, despite the capitalization, is an acronym that stands for Exchangeable image file format.

In the hands of an individual, this metadata can be eminently useful.  It allows you to see when a picture was taken even if the time stamp on the image file changes.  It contains all of the settings that the camera used to capture the image, in case you need that.  Among the most important – and potentially the most troubling – pieces of metadata are the geolocation coordinates where the image was captured.  Many people may not consider this to be an issue, but depending on the circumstances it can be an important matter of privacy.  For instance, a picture of a child playing in a park is innocent enough, but when that picture has time tag and geolocation information embedded, it telegraphs information to potential predators that is better left un-broadcast.  That’s just one example.  You may remember when famous anti-virus programmer John McAfee went into hiding several years ago after his neighbor in Belize turned up dead under highly suspicious circumstances.  McAfee granted an exclusive interview to a reporter to tell his side of the story, and an article was published on the web along with a picture that the reporter took using his mobile phone.  There were GPS coordinates embedded in the image, and McAfee was located in Guatemala and taken into custody two days later. Think this doesn’t affect you?  Well, infamous Wiki-Leaker Edward Snowden has said that the NSA is actively targeting Exif information.  One can only guess why.

All these potential privacy problems go away when the metadata is removed from images before they are distributed or published to a web page, and doing so is surprisingly easy in Windows 10.  Since, as I said earlier, the Exif information actually has a measure of usefulness in the hands of the image owner, I recommend starting this process by making copies of all the pictures from which you want the data removed.  It’s easiest to handle them if you create a dedicated folder, then simply select the pictures with the mouse, right-click them and select “Copy”; then in the target folder, right-click and select “Paste”.  Once you have all the pictures there, select them all, right-click on them, and select “Properties”.  In the tabbed dialog that appears, go to the “Details” tab.  You should see a hyperlink that says “Remove Properties and Personal Information”.  You will be presented with another dialog that allows you to batch-remove any or all of the metadata items from the selected files.  While you’re in there, take a look at all the information stored in your pictures that you probably never realized was there.

It’s worth mentioning that that there are dedicated apps for both iOS and Android that can remove metadata if your pictures don’t happen to be located on a PC.  They are available in your platform’s app store.

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