Location information on smartphones poses risk

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In a short period of time, smartphones have completely changed the way we live. However, much like Newton’s Third Law of Motion (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), these changes have had both positive and negative consequences. 

Positive: Instant messaging and texting allow us to stay in contact with friends and loved ones at all times. If you’re a parent concerned about your teenage children, this is a wonderful technology. 

Negative: The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that texting while driving caused 1.6 million accidents last year. This led to 330,000 injuries, and texting is involved in almost 25 percent of all car accidents.

Positive: Smartphones also allow us to carry a high-resolution camera with us at all times. Many people like to share photos of the places they’ve been and the experiences they had on popular social media sites like Flicker, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Today, the top six cameras used to upload photos to Flicker are smartphones. 

Negative: Unknown to most social media users, when they upload an image from a smartphone, it probably contains geotagging information gathered with the phone’s GPS that shows the location, date and time the photo was taken. Our military adversaries have proved they can collect this information and use it against us.

In 1997, insurgents used metadata posted with pictures against U.S. forces in Iraq. When a new fleet of helicopters arrived with an aviation unit at a base in Iraq, some Army soldiers took pictures on the flight line. From the photos uploaded to the Internet, the enemy was able to determine the exact location of the helicopters inside the compound and conduct a mortar attack. It destroyed four AF-64 Apaches. Fortunately, no personnel were injured or killed in this attack. 

Adversaries have shown they have both the means and the capability to utilize this information in a real-time scenario. Last June, Sanya Sotkin, a Russian Army Signal Corps soldier, posted a selfie of himself inside an armored personnel carrier on Instagram. Analysis of the metadata, posted with the pictures, showed that he was 38 miles inside the Ukrainian border, although the Russian government continued to maintain there were no Russian military forces inside Ukraine. 

Shortly after this was published in the press, the official position was modified to announce exercises with friendly Ukrainian forces. 

Locational data also poses a risk to our families and our life outside of work. A would-be burglar could easily filter this information to identify a real-time target of opportunity. When you posted those pictures on Facebook of your fabulous Caribbean Cruise, did you really intend to post a real-time advertisement that your house was vacant and ready to burglarized? 

So, how do we protect our military missions from the adversary and safe-proof our homes and families?

Be familiar with your smartphone’s settings and disable geotagging unless it is absolutely needed. Disable as soon as not needed.

Know your Social Media Privacy Settings and disable these features, if possible.

Don’t share unneeded information with the public.

Understand that once something is posted on the Internet, you’ve lost all control over it or how it will be used.

Think before you click.