Metadata and thumbnails can out your sources

Most photojournalists have started tagging their photos with IPTC metadata to aid in copyrighting and indexing their massive collection of images. Some news organizations also require that all digital images be tagged to properly track and attribute the file during the production process. This metadata, however, can lead to some compromising moments if not properly sanitized or redacted before publication.

An article that ran in The Washington Post earlier this year sparked a flurry of activity as an anonymous source’s location was seemingly outed by the metadata the photojournalist embedded in the photo attached to the article. The photo was eventually pulled from the Post’s Web site but not before Slashdot readers posted the probable location of the source and later used Google Maps to track down locations mentioned in the article. Although not a career-ending move the situation could have turned out much worse had the source’s real name been left in the metadata.

Gaze into my eyes...

Gaze into my eyes...

Even more serious is the case of not properly re-saving an image file after executing minor crops or edits. Under some circumstances Photoshop and other image editing programs will use the original unedited image to generate the thumbnail icon instead of using the final edited version of the image. One such widely-publicized incident resulted in topless photos of then-TechTV correspondent Cat Schwartz getting posted on the Web.

While the final published photos were tightly-cropped closeups the photoshoot was actually done with Cat lounging topless in the studio. When fans downloaded the images it was quickly revealed that the thumbnail icons contained an original uncropped topless image. Although the thumbnails weren’t high-resolution it was still enough to result in an embarrassing moment. Even now, years after the incident, a page containing the enlarged topless photos is #2 on Google when searching for Cat’s name.

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