Nab Those Camera and Image Thieves!

Posted by Justin Case — 13 Jun 2011

Roy Furchgott of the New York Times details an interesting new experiment that might make it possible for you to track a stolen camera, or find someone using your photos without permission and even stretch to help police track down child pornographers.

ActiveTrak, Inc. (also known by their primary service, GadgetTrak), a software company that makes data-protection and tracking software for computers and phones, in collaboration with CPUsage, a company that links home computers into a sort of virtual 'super-computer' to share processing power to crunch enormous data tasks, has launched the GadgetTrak Serial Search. Essentially, the program searches the Web for EXIF data, the data that is encoded along with digital photographs.

Whether you shoot on your mobile phone or one of the recent model digital cameras, there is a variety of data that is digitally coded into the photo information (along with the pixels that make up the image). Here at JPGMag.com, we're starting to surface the EXIF data that accompanies your photos so that the community can see what type of equipment is used and, in the near future, what shutter-speed, aperture and other settings are used. You can see an example of 'phase 1' of that on any image that has data in/with the image. To see an example, you can look at this image. You'll notice in the right column, under the spotlight featured image, that there is a new highlighted square called "Photo Info". You'll see what camera was used and what dates the image was taken and submitted. In the near future, you'll see an expansion of that section to include many of the settings and, if enabled, GPS or lattitude / longitude coordinates that will enable mapping of that great building or waterfall or beach.

What makes GadgetTrak's Camera Search so interesting is that when images are published AND the EXIF data is submitted along with the image, your image has, in effect, a unique set of identifying information. So if someone 'lifts' that image and re-uses it without your permission, the service can find that and show you where and how the image is being used.

GadgetTrak's Camera Search uses the computer processing power harnessed by the shared resources of CPUsage to search the Web for photos and then catalog the images and associated cameras it finds. If you go to the site and enter a camera's serial number, you can see your photo register. More than 3 million serial numbers have already been logged in the slightly longer than a week that the GadgetTrak Camera Search beta has been publicly available.

gadgettrak_diagram.jpg

If you enter the serial number of your recently lost (or stolen) camera and you see images that aren't yours, you'll have an idea of who has your camera (by checking their ID on the site the submitted to). If, on the other hand, you see your images on a site, posted by someone to whom you have not given permission, you'll have clear evidence to pursue them for copyright infringement. This same data can be used to identify the perpetrator who shoots illicit or illegal images, such as child pornography or an image of a beating or a crime during commission. With Facebook, Twitter and other social networks as well as Tumblr, Posterous and other blog networks where people post a variety of images, finding the identities of such 'bad actors' would be fairly straightforward.

One thing to keep in mind is that certain software (like PhotoShop and other editors) have settings that allow you to 'strip' or 'suppress' the EXIF in the images. The fact is that EXIF data can be highly useful. Not only can in provide the information about the settings and equipment used, but also the locations, date and more. The benefits of surfacing and sharing the info among a community like JPG include the ability to more easily give and accept feedback on work, when photographers can see what equipment and settings were used, there's a starting point for critique or to learn what you might want to do next time you're framing an image. The idea that retaining and surfacing that data can now help you monitor your work around the Web, makes the retention, use and submission of the EXIF data that much more compelling.

Generally, postings on Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and many other public sites are including submitted EXIF with the postings. While it is possible for thieves to spoof a serial number stamp on your stolen camera, most thieves are not quite that sophisticated - so GadgetTrak Camera Search should go a long way to making the wild Web a friendlier place for purveyors of digital images.

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