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Monday 20 February 2012

Flickr knows where you are

A recent study shows the photos you post to Flickr may unveil a lot more about yourself than you think, including where you're originally located.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but can it also reveal the location of your hometown? According to a recent study by the University of Victoria, your photos on Flickr can help science to make such an educated guess.

The study, They Know Where You Live!, by the computer science department of the university state that by using the geolocations of the photos uploaded to Flickr, an algorithm can determine an individual’s hometown based on the belief that most people take photographs in and around their permanent locations.

The algorithm looks at all the places a Flickr user’s pictures are taken in and also the places in the user’s Flickr friends to identify a rough estimation of where the user is originally located. This system also attempts to account for places users may have traveled to for vacations or holidays, and calculates the distance between each locations. These distances help provide a central location from where the user is possibly traveling. To prove their success rate, the study compares their guesses to the Flickr profiles in which users have published their home locations.

“In 70 percent of the cases our algorithm has predicted the place of living of people with low error,” the study states.

Why Flickr? Likely because it is one of the most popular places for beginning and professional photographers alike to publish their pictures, and Flickr provides some of the most extensive Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data freely available without having to use a third-party resource. Today’s latest camera technology also often come equipped with a GPS chip to embed the photo’s location into the EXIF data without users manually adding geographical locations to their Flickr photos.

While the study claims to be relatively successful, I wonder about the testing pool used in the experiment. Many professional photographers often travel to a variety of places to build their portfolios, and college students starting out on Flickr may be posting more pictures from their college towns than where they are originally from. Some people also only use Flickr as an online travel album.

Many factors contribute to possibly skewing the data found in the study, but the overall takeaway point is how users’ participation in online social media reveal a lot more about themselves than they know.

A computer algorithm may have determined various users’ hometowns, but given some time, anyone can scroll through a person’s Flickr profile and sort through the pictures’ geotags themselves to make a guess about that user’s base location.

I'm not encouraging you to debunk the hard work of the those who worked on this study, but unless adding a geotag to your photos benefit you in any particular way, you may want to consider turning off public access to your EXIF data on your Flickr account just to keep your information safe.

While you’re at it, take advantage your camera's built in functionality and set the location EXIF value to zero. I mean, YOU know where you took the photo. Unless you are a commercial 'photo-selling' type, this is one feature not needed. I'm reminded of all the Vancouver rioters last year, where do you think they got all that info?

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