Snap a digital photo, share it with friends and move on with your life. Sounds pretty typical—especially if you’re on vacation or enjoying a special occasion. But the EXIF data concealed in your digital images may reveal more than you intend, giving others an entry point into your life’s private details.
“I had a friend a few years ago who had a continuing pattern of excessive last-minute unavailability—not showing up when we had plans,” said Ashley, a project manager in Washington, D.C. “Everyone has flakey friends, but there had been approximately 20 last-minute cancellations over the course of about three months, all due to almost unbelievably unfortunate circumstances.”
“I got a text from her one evening when we were supposed to meet for dinner—her sister’s house caught fire and she had been with her all afternoon, so she wouldn’t be able to meet up. Believe it or not, something like this was a pretty typical last-minute crisis for her. But this time she sent a photo with her text,” Ashley said.
“The picture was a blurry shot of a house on fire with a fire truck and firemen in front of it. Sending a picture with the text was not her regular MO, so I was a little suspicious. I checked the EXIF data and saw that the picture was taken over two years prior.”
What is EXIF data?
“EXIF, or exchangeable image file format, is a file used in images and sounds
recorded by digital devices such as digital cameras or scanners,” said professional photographer Tudor Stanescu. “EXIF data captures valuable information about the photograph that can be accessed at a later date, [and it contains] a lot of practical and useful applications for photographers.”
For example, EXIF data reveals what kind of camera and lens a photographer used, in addition to other settings, when taking a specific photo.
“This is useful for beginner photographers to archive and reference later if they do not remember how they achieved a specific photo,” Stanescu said.
But in addition to specifics about contrast, hue, saturation and other settings helpful to aspiring pros, EXIF data also includes detailed information that could reveal too much.
What’s included in photo EXIF data?
The amount of detail included in a photo’s EXIF data depends on the device used to capture an image. But in general, whether you take pictures with a pro-grade DSLR camera or a smartphone, the EXIF data behind your photos includes the precise GPS coordinates of where the photo was taken, in addition to the date and time. And that’s caught the attention of photographers and security consultants alike.
“EXIF data raises privacy concerns similar to the recent issues with other social media platforms such as Facebook,” said professional photographer and producer Jim Costa.
“There can be advantages to this information, such as using the geotagging info to allow others to see images taken in the same places (such as using Google Images), but this also allows unscrupulous people to track your movements.”
In other words, EXIF data travels with images when you email them or post them online, which means others can collect information about your precise whereabouts. Combine a wealth of EXIF data along with other information that might turn up in a Google or online people search, and someone may be able to learn a lot more about you than you probably imagined.
And though social media platforms such as Facebook automatically remove your images’ EXIF data when you post, the businesses themselves collect it, unless you remove it before you upload.
“It is possible to remove this information from your images if you’re concerned,” said Costa. “Both Mac and PC allow it, and it’s also possible to stop the addition of the GPS information on smartphones by changing your settings.”
How to view and remove photo EXIF metadata
If you’re concerned about unintentionally sharing sensitive details about your location or camera settings, you can view and remove it easily.
How to view and remove EXIF data on Windows:
- Right-click the source image.
- Navigate to “Properties” in the drop-down menu.
- Open the “Details” tab to view EXIF data.
- Under “Value,” remove or replace EXIF data as desired.
- Click “OK” to save.
How to view and remove EXIF data on MacOS:
- Open the source image in the Preview app.
- Select the image using Command-A.
- Copy the image using Command-C.
- Open a new window with the image copy using Command-N.
- Re-save the image as a JPEG by exiting; a “Save” pop-up will appear.
- Verify you’ve removed the EXIF data by opening the new image in Preview and selecting “Show Inspector.”
- If deleted successfully, there will either be no EXIF tab or an EXIF tab with only the pixel dimensions.
How to view and remove EXIF data on iOS:
- Open the Photos app.
- Select the desired image and hit “Share.”
- Hit “Options.”
- Uncheck “Location” and make sure “All Data” remains unchecked.
How to view and remove EXIF data on Android:
- Open the Gallery app.
- Select the desired image and hit “More.”
- Select “Details,” then “Edit.”
- Click “-” next to the details you wish to delete.
How to prevent EXIF data capture
It’s easy to understand why photo pros would want to protect their competitive advantage by hiding information about their camera settings, but average folks are probably more interested in protecting location information. And though these tips help you eliminate EXIF data on pictures you’ve already taken, you can also stop geotagging by changing automated settings on your smartphone.
If you own an iPhone, EXIF data capture rules are stored in the Settings app. Open “Privacy” and then “Location Services.” Choose “Camera” and make sure “Never” is selected.
If you use Android, you may need to review the instructions that came with your phone. But in general, location permissions are located in the “Privacy” submenu in the Settings app. Choose “Permissions” and then “Location” and “Camera,” and select “Deny.”
The devil is in the details
Showing off fantastic photos from your latest trip abroad probably won’t necessitate deleting sensitive EXIF data since it’s clear that your location is part of your story. But when you post images from your daughter’s soccer game, you’ll probably want to consider modifying your smartphone settings as a precaution.
As for Ashley’s friend who recycled an old image to get out of a commitment, it didn’t end well.
“Needless to say, we did not last long, as I had no reason to believe the validity of any of her previous excuses,” Ashley said.