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Are Ecologists Inadvertently Publishing Sensitive Ecological Data?

​Beware the risk of metadata! That’s certainly the message I've recently come to understand as a newbie to social media. Like many, I’m of a generation that didn’t grow up with smart phones – these came to me in my late twenties, so there are many facets to these technological wonders that goes over my head. One of these facets is metadata, but what is metadata for those of you who don’t know? A quick search of Google describes metadata as ‘data that serves to provide context or additional information about other data’.

When recently going through my iPhone, in an attempt to get it to go a little faster, I became aware of ‘Location Services’. This handy little function, which is built into your iPhone, records a longitude and latitude to any file that has a ‘location’ or ‘co-ordinate’ aspect to it, in this instance, photographs. The metadata recorded by 'Location Services’ is embedded in the photograph and migrates, in most instances, with the picture when it’s copied or moved.

One of the many things we ecologists like to do is take pictures of our work. It can be anything from flowering plants, grasses and lichens, to otter scat, badger setts or birds. The list is endless and is as variable as the interests of an ecologist! What we also like to do in this digital age is share our pictures, through on-line services like Twitter or Instagram or through blogs like this one. However, what some of us are unaware of is the implication of inadvertently publishing the metadata behind our pictures. Now, for many on-line services, e.g. Twitter, these companies strip out the metadata in order to provide digital protection. However, not all services provide this function, in particular, blogs or other publications that are published by enthused individuals or organisations.

To explore the above issue in more detail and test my concerns, I visited a recent blog I was reading. Understandably I’ll not provide any more details on the person writing the blog or the subject matter. This very informative article was an ideal test subject because the author was candid and open about the location of the blog. So, I extracted one of the photographs and dropped it into the following web site: In the matter of minutes I was rewarded with a positive outcome. Not only did I learn that the picture was taken with an iPhone 5 in late December 2014 without a flash but the file also carried very accurate longitude and latitude metadata as to the location of the picture. Now, I’m sure the author was aware of the published metadata behind the photograph and given the picture was not sensitive, there really isn’t an issue, in this instance. However, this example serves to underpin the above concerns about the possibility of inadvertently publishing sensitive ecological data.

So what lessons has an old timer like me learned today? Well, first and foremost, I’m turning ‘Location Services’ off on my iPhone. I know where my pictures were taken, so I don’t need Apple to gather this information for me – I’m not that old yet! Secondly, in this digital age and as a responsible ecologist, it’s important not to take for granted the possibility that metadata has been embedded into our photographs. It therefore makes sense to undertake a check of all photographs for sensitive metadata prior to publication.

For those who are interested, there exists a range of web sites that will not only read the metadata but also provide the ability to remove it, in this instance location or co-ordinate data - one such example of an on-line resource is

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