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Privacy and geotagging

Privacy is going to be an increasing concern as more and more photographs embed information about the location where they were taken.

The initial broad adoption of the Internet was, in major respects, about breaking down the boundaries of place and space. Important aspects of Web 2.0 concern themselves with reintroducing the local into the global. When I attended Mashup Camp at MIT earlier this year, I was struck by how much of the interest was around merging data with maps.

Thus, it's not particularly surprising that geotagging, associating photos with a map location, is a current hot topic. At the recent Web 2.0 Summit, Flickr debuted an upcoming revamp of its map page and a new "places" feature. (See screenshots and more here.) A couple of weeks ago I conducted my own geotagging experiment to see if I could merge GPS data with photos that I took during a hike (conclusion: yes, but you have to be a bit of a geek).

At the risk of stating the obvious, all photos are taken somewhere. Some, such as studio portraits, don't have location as a central characteristic. However, for many photos, location is key. And for some, such as pictures of real estate, location is arguably the defining characteristic.

Consequently, I expect that we're going to see hardware that makes it easier to record GPS information and integrate it with photographs. And a corresponding evolution of photosharing sites to simplify the storage and display of that geotagged data. This is good but it also carries some risks.

Now I'm not a tinfoil hat sort of guy.

There's a lot of information available about me through Google. You could probably even find out where I live without straining yourself terribly. None of this especially concerns me. But geotagging represents an explicit link between the virtual and the physical world. That's what makes it interesting--but also a bit worrying.

To be sure, we'll always have the ability to choose when and where we expose geotagged data. But that won't necessarily be simple.

For one thing, as geotagged data becomes more ubiquitous (and more of our lives go online in some form or another), more "leakage" is inevitable. You forget to set a privacy filter correctly. You don't know how to set a privacy filter. You didn't realize that the data had geospatial information.

And that assumes that you have control. What if someone else takes photos at your party that embed GPS data and uploads them to the public area of Flickr? (In an amusing twist, Flickr co-founder Stewart Butterfield reportedly asked people attending a party at his house recently not to geotag any photos they took.)

I can think of various features one could implement on a site like Flickr to mitigate the issue. But none are perfect and, in any case, that's only one site. Nor do I think a glib "privacy is dead" is a proper response either. Think of it as yet another to-do and to-think-about in the complicated merger of our private and professional, virtual and physical lives.