Twitpic, EXIF and GPS: I Know Where You Did it Last Summer

Published: 2010-02-10
Last Updated: 2010-02-11 14:51:27 UTC
by Johannes Ullrich (Version: 1)
13 comment(s)

Modern cell phones frequently include a camera and a GPS. Even if a GPS is not included, cell phone towers can be used to establish the location of the phone. Image formats include special headers that can be used to store this information, so called EXIF tags.

In order to test the prevalence of these tags and analyze the information leaked via EXIF tags, we collected 15,291 images from popular image hosting site Twitpic is frequently used together with Twitter. Software on smart phones will take the picture, upload it to twitpix and then post a message on Twitter pointing to the image. Twitpic images are usually not protected and open for all to read who know the URL. The URL is short and incrementing, allowing for easy harvesting of pictures hosted on Twitpic.

We wrote a little script to harvest 15,291 images. A second script was used to analyze the EXIF information embedded in these images. About 10,000 of the images included basic EXIF information, like image resolution and camera orientation. 5247 images included the Camera Model.

Most interestingly: 399 images included the location of the camera at the time the image was taken, and 102 images included the name of the photographer. Correlating the camera model with the photographer field, we found that it was predominantly set for the Canon and Nikon cameras. Only few camera phones had the parameter set.

GPS coordinates where only set for phones, with one single exception (a Nikon Point and Shoot camera, which does not appear to come with a build in GPS. The location may have been added manually or by an external GPS unit). The lion share of images that included GPS tags came from iPhones.

The iPhone is including the most EXIF information among the images we found. The largest EXIF data set we found can be found here. It not only includes the phone's location, but also accelerometer data showing if the phone was moved at the time the picture was taken and the readout from the build in compass showing in which direction the phone was pointed at the time.

Figure 1: Pictures with GPS coordinates broken down by Phone manufacturer.


Figure 2: Geographic Distribution of Images


Now the obvious question: Anything interesting in these pictures? The images all the way up north shows an empty grocery store (kind of like in the DC area these days). The picture at the Afghan - Pakistan border shows a pizza... Osama got away again I guess.

The scripts used for this can be found here: (two scripts, also needs "exiftools" to pull out the data).

Johannes B. Ullrich, Ph.D.
SANS Technology Institute

Keywords: cameras exif gps twitpix
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