Smart-Phone Safety for Churches

Disable Geo-Tagging Feature before Taking Photos to Post Online

One summer day, a church youth group spent the day swimming at a beautiful lake in the country, home to one of the group members. Everyone had a great time, and the youth pastor took pictures of the kids with his iPhone and posted them to the church’s Twitter feed.

Documenting the trip so that parents could see their kids having fun at the lake may have seemed like a good idea, but what the youth pastor did could actually cause problems for the church. Since his camera’s global positioning system (GPS) feature was turned on, people viewing the pictures online could find out exactly where the youth group member lived.

Using a smart phone’s GPS to geo-tag the location at which a picture was taken can be a great resource when used privately. However, posting geo-tagged pictures online has some drawbacks—especially when children are involved. It’s important to understand the risks of geo-tagging before posting photos online.

How Geo-Tagging Works

Most smart phones made after 2009, including iPhones, BlackBerrys, Androids, and Palm devices, are equipped with GPS. In addition to the information needed to produce an image, digital photo files include something called exchangeable image file format data (EXIF). This information is specific to each photo taken, such as the date and time, whether or not a flash was used, and exact GPS coordinates marking where the picture was taken. If a photo containing GPS coordinates in its EXIF data is posted on the Internet, anyone with a free browser add-on can access this sensitive information. Some of the websites that keep EXIF data for images include Twitter, Picasa, Flickr, and PhotoBucket.

Having a GPS-enabled smart phone can be a big help to church ministries when looking for the closest pizza place to pick up dinner for the youth group, or to aid team leaders in remembering where their mission team worked on each day of their mission trip, but it is important to be careful when mixing GPS and photos.

Temptation for Strangers

If a children’s ministry worker were to use a smart phone to take photos of kids and then posted the pictures to the church’s website or Twitter feed, it could become a lure for strangers. For example, it might let an estranged parent know that a particular child attends a certain church or preschool—even in which room of the building the child’s picture was taken.

While this scenario is unlikely, a youth pastor or volunteer who posted an image that led to someone’s injury could be held liable—especially if the photo’s data led a stranger to a private residence.

If a photo containing GPS coordinates in its EXIF data is posted on the Internet, anyone with a free browser add-on can access this sensitive information.

A Simple Solution

To avoid the unintended distribution of photos, it’s recommended that the GPS capability of smart phone cameras be disabled—especially if the pictures taken will be posted online. The GPS doesn’t need to be disabled for all of the smart phone’s applications, just for the camera.