EXIF Data: You’re Being Tracked And Didn’t Even Know It


Ever heard of EXIF Data? Because EXIF Data has heard of you… 

Laugh all you like, but ‘fear of food’ is an actual condition. Known as cibophobia, vast numbers of cases stem from anxiety around food tampering.

Nightmarish scenarios such as the 1982 Chicago Tylenol Murders stoke the boilers of dread. The panic of 1978 (where religious terrorists injected shop-bound Oranges with mercury) plague the mind. Or the insecticide-laden beef scenario of 2003 (caused by an employee looking to get his supervisor into trouble) fan the flames of angst when placing trust in major food manufacturers. 

Restaurants don’t escape this stigma, either. There was a well-documented scenario back in 2012 of shredded lettuce in a restaurant being – let’s put this gently – mishandled. 

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In effect, an unseen employee stood with each dirty shoe in a container of lettuce that was soon to be garnished upon food and consumed by the hungry public. They even took a photo and posted it to the internet. Because that’s what morons do. 

Morons, you say? Yes. For they forgot one big thing about posting to the internet, and it’s the same aspect that may help solve your cibophobia. Our hero? Step forward, EXIF Data

This ill-fated photograph was posted to the notorious 4Chan platform in a bid for viral fame. The originator of said food-defiling image was, no doubt, prepared to sit back and enjoy the panic they had created. Beer in hand. Ego primely satisfied. The guys down the bar would bow to the mastermind behind the mass paranoia produced by such an act. 

Except, EXIF Data had something to say. And it ultimately led to their identification, prosecution, and downfall

What is EXIF Data?

What is EXIF Data?

You may look at a picture and take it only for face value, but, as the old saying goes – a picture paints a thousand words

While that phrase originated from a time before computers, the saying aptly fits a digital age. An age where stray photographs and a lack of digital knowledge can bring your world crashing around you.

EXIF data can be defined by those blessed with a digital mindset as ‘metadata’, but it goes much deeper than that. 

Modern cameras, and camera phones, write a hugely telling amount of metadata into each snapshot taken. This data incorporates the make and model of the camera, the camera settings, the time of day that the picture or video/audio was captured, and (most terrifyingly of all)… your location

EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File Format, and sets a precedent for new standards in tracking and analysing images and audio. 

Modern camera phones have such an incredibly advanced set of EXIF parameters, bolstered by significant leaps in GPS software, that they can pinpoint you to an almost exact geographical coordinate. Once you take a picture – BAM! – that image is now embedded with your longitude and latitude. There is no escape. 

This might all sound hard to believe if you’ve never encountered EXIF data before. Still, there is one prominent real-world example that will prove the impact EXIF data can have

Ever heard of John McAfee?  

EXIF Data: Busting A Fugitive

John McAfee - EXIF DATA

McAfee’s name might not ring a bell, but you’ll undoubtedly have encountered his antivirus software. Chances are, his coding is on your computer right now. This is why his incarceration through a slip up with a rogue photo is all the more ironic. 

Y’see, McAfee isn’t the basement-dwelling computer nerd that you may assume. He doesn’t live off a diet of low-level lighting, pizza, Mountain Dew, and Dungeons & Dragons. 

Instead, John embroiled himself in a world of drugs and supposed illegal activity, where he actually ended up on the run after his neighbour was murdered. 

McAfee didn’t kill his neighbour, supposedly, but he was convinced it was a botched hit; where his neighbour was assassinated in a case of mistaken identity. 

John believed that the execution-style killing was intended for him. Especially after McAfee claimed the Belize Government wanted him dead, because he refused to pay bribes to an official.   

Some say that McAfee was responsible for the death of his neighbour, and that there is evidence to support this. However, that’s not for us to judge. 

Whatever the backstory, McAfee fled the country and quickly became the world’s hotly-discussed new fugitive. Government bodies both at home and abroad tried to hunt him down, yet to no avail. That was, until someone posted a photo online. 

McAfee was tracked down by VICE (the self-claimed online definitive guide to enlightening information), who promptly (and accidentally) gave away his location. The picture posted alongside their article, throughout which they claimed the publication would follow his exploits while on the run from the law, had – you guessed it – EXIF Geolocation Metadata still attached. 

Courtesy of the Editor’s slip up, Twitter user @simplenomad dissected this information and shared it with the world. After examining the EXIF data, McAfee was located next to the swimming pool at a rather posh resort in Guatemala – known as Ranchon Mary

Of course, once the news leaked, VICE personnel scrambled to wipe data and repost the image, but the damage was done. Not even McAfee’s attempt to convince authorities that the metadata had been ‘manipulated’ to throw bounty hunters off his trail worked out. 

McAfee was well and truly busted and arrested after seeking political asylum in Guatemala City. All because of some oversight with EXIF metadata. D’oh! 

EXIF Data: Does This Mean I Can Always Be Tracked?

EXIF Data Location Tracking

Some people leave a trail of destruction, or biscuit crumbs, in their wake, and can easily be tracked. Others have habits that betray them when trying to hide. 

However, suppose you are blissfully unaware of the technology and settings behind your camera or smartphone. In that case, regardless of your Boy Scout or Girl Guide talents, you can be swiftly located by unscrupulous types every time you post a photo or video. 

Uploaded a picture of your new house to Facebook? I’ll be able to find your address and, when you announce that you are away, I can roll up in my old Jaguar and take all your valuables. Because that’s what Jaguar drivers do. 

Posted a snapshot of something valuable to boast and edited the picture to hide any location giveaways? Oops. With EXIF data, I can roll up in my Jaaaaaag and take all your valuables

Pretending to be somewhere you are not, to convince everyone that you are living your best life? Crumbs. I can roll up in my Jaaaaaaaag and expose you. And then take all your valuables. 

It sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? Suddenly your every move, whereabouts, actions, and suspicious trips to the woods in your 4×4 with rolled-up carpet, can be tracked. No one is safe. Big Brother is watching you. 

Yet, try not to panic. For EXIF location data can actually be switched off. That’s what your ‘Location Settings’ are all about. 

Each app, website, or device has its own unique way of presenting the option to turn your location off. And, if being tracked down worries you, we’d suggest that you do just that. Sleep soundly at night by removing EXIF data from your postings. 

However, you’ll still have your old images – out there on the world wide web – broadcasting your EXIF data. Sites such as Flickr and 500px allow this information to be found by anyone who seeks it out

If you really feel uncomfortable with this data setting up your online stall, head into the settings of your applications and disable GPS tracking and all location settings, and then decide what to do about your old posts.

They can be deleted, but you then run the risk of losing all the activity and recognition your post/picture/video has brought you. 

Guess you have to weigh up what matters more. Your online ‘likes’ or avoiding the site of my Jaguar turning up – where I then take all your valuables. 

Can EXIF Data Be Used For SEO Purposes?

EXIF Data and SEO

I’m so glad that I assumed you would ask this question. 

Yes! EXIF data can be used to boost your organic SEO rankings. But not in the sordid, unsavoury, or downright unreasonable way others exploit EXIF data for illegal purposes. 

Outside of all the time/date and photography settings stuff, EXIF data effectively gives location information to those who want it. If you have your GPS location tracking on, during the time the picture was taken, of course. 

This information can be fed to Google in various ways, and the results of doing so (if completed correctly) have previously given SEO campaigns a little steroid shot of SERPS (Search Engine Result Pages) goodness. 

By adding EXIF data to your images (and some may recommend your posts, too), Google can associate your images with your business location and address. This assists in cementing your authority and level of trust with local searches. This is good. 

However, don’t think that you can cheat the system. If you try to manipulate the EXIF data to show locations that aren’t yours, then Google will know. And Google will punish you with a demotion in the rankings. This is bad. 

What About The Lettuce?

EXIF Data Burger King Lettuce

Thanks to EXIF Data on the picture uploaded to 4Chan, the employees who found it so amusing to defile customer’s food were located at an exact geographical coordinate.

As reported by mashable.com, “the original post went live on July 16 at 11:38 p.m.

At 11:47 p.m., another 4chan user noted that the photo’s Exif data pointed to Mayfield Heights, Ohio.

At 11:50 p.m., just 12 minutes later, someone posted the address of the Burger King branch in which the lettuce-stepping occurred, wishing the OP a happy unemployment.

At 11:55 p.m., someone contacted the news.

At 11:58 p.m., someone posted the link to Burger King’s Tell Us About Us form, with the photo attached.

The next morning, Cleveland Scene Magazine contacted the Burger King establishment and talked to the breakfast shift manager, who, upon seeing the offending photo, said “Oh, I know who that is. He’s getting fired.

Burger King then issued this statement:

“Burger King Corp. has recently been made aware of a photo posted on a social networking site that allegedly shows a Burger King restaurant employee violating the company’s stringent food handling procedures. Food safety is a top priority at all Burger King restaurants, and the company maintains a zero-tolerance policy against any violations such as the one in question.

The restaurant where this photo was allegedly taken is independently owned and operated by a Burger King franchisee. The franchisee has taken swift action to investigate this matter and terminated the employee involved in this incident.”

So there we have it. What was originally a mystery with no clue of person or location, was debunked due to some diligence from the internet community and a healthy dose of EXIF data

The employees at Burger King were fired for their behaviour

So, suffering from anxiety about what people may have done to your food? As long as there are morons on the internet (of which there will doubtless be millions), then your angst can rest easy. 

EXIF data will always help track these people down when they insist on sharing their activity to appease their ego. Which, being morons, they are destined to do. Forever.

Picture of John McAfee courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Flickr


Calum Brown

Calum Brown

Calum has worked with SEO for the best part of a decade and is proud of it! He previously created and led Bauer's SEO strategy for their digital classic automotive portfolio and helped to launch America's largest collector car site for SpeedDigital. Having come from an SEO, marketing and editorial background, and having studied Business Information Systems at Edinburgh Napier University, Calum now dedicates his time to all things SEO. He takes great pride in helping Physical Therapy businesses find their perfect (local) clients and drinks copious amounts of tea doing so. Best not to feed him after midnight.

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About The Author

Calum Brown

Calum has worked with SEO for the best part of a decade and is proud of it! He previously created and led Bauer's SEO strategy for their digital classic automotive portfolio and helped to launch America's largest collector car site for SpeedDigital. Having come from an SEO, marketing and editorial background, and having studied Business Information Systems at Edinburgh Napier University, Calum now dedicates his time to all things SEO. He takes great pride in helping Physical Therapy businesses find their perfect (local) clients and drinks copious amounts of tea doing so. Best not to feed him after midnight.