Every photo holds a story. Photos and videos capture a snapshot in time and viewing them brings back memories of when the photo was taken and the people or scenery in them. With time, the memories aren’t as fresh as they used to be, and some of the people, places, or even time might be forgotten. Before digital photography became ubiquitous, printed photos and slides had handwritten notes on the back or in an album to remind viewers when and where a photo was taken.

Today, while billions of photos remain on hard drives and are not printed with a physical reminder of the time or place, they contain data that makes up the photo and a digital fingerprint with information about when, where, and how a photo was taken. This data, known as metadata, is useful when you’re trying to sort or filter photos. But, in the wrong hands, metadata can be telling a story about you that you may want to keep secure and private.

Here’s what you can find in metadata, some of the risks involved with sharing photos that contain metadata, and how you can control your metadata and ensure that you’re only sharing that private information with the people you trust.

What is Metadata?

Metadata comes in a few different file types. Metadata is automatically generated by your camera or smartphone whenever you take a photo, or it can be added later through photo editing software or other photo viewing tools.

The most common file type for metadata is Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF). This is the metadata that your camera generates for you automatically. It will include information such as the time and date the photo was taken and technical specs like the type of camera, shutter speed, ISO, aperture, flash, and even geotagging if that’s an available feature on the camera. This data can be easily viewed in the default photo viewer on a Mac or PC simply by looking at the photo’s properties.

The International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) data is commonly used by photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom. You can add metadata like captions, descriptions, copyright information, and keywords to make sorting and batching together photos even easier.

Whether metadata is added manually or automatically, it stays with a digital photograph even after it’s downloaded or uploaded somewhere else, unless the data is stripped out.

How Your Metadata Puts You at Risk

Because so much data is stored in every photo automatically, it’s easy to determine a lot of information from a single photo. John McAfee, a software executive wanted in Belize for questioning in the murder of his neighbor, was pictured in a photo alongside Vice reporters, and the headline photo included geotagged metadata to show a home in Guatemala.

While you may not need to worry about running from the law, there are plenty of reasons why you might not want your photos to end up on the internet with geotagged locations or other sensitive information.

And while some photo-sharing platforms and social media sites do not include the metadata once you upload them, they often still use that data to learn more information about you, such as where and when you take photos and the type of smartphone or camera you use. And, all of that information is available for strangers to take advantage of.

Sharing Your Metadata Securely

While keeping and using metadata might be useful in some applications, it can be unnecessarily risky. Managing and even deleting information you don’t want to share with others is simple. It just requires a few extra steps:

  • Turn it off at the source. Use your smartphone’s settings to turn off locations on your photos.
  • Don’t share locations with others. Both Apple and Android devices have features to customize what information is shared when you share a photo with another user.
  • Take a screenshot of the image. Rather than sending a raw file to upload somewhere, take a screenshot of it and use that image.

If you don’t want your metadata to end up in the hands of big tech companies that use that data to learn more about you, you might be pickier about where and how you upload your photos. The Amber X device is built to solve many of these problems. We keep your photos safely stored on physical hard drives and in the cloud outside from third-party servers like Google and Amazon. Your cloud storage isn’t accessed or harvested by the Amber X team, keeping your photos safe and only accessible to the people you designate.

Metadata in photos is a handy tool for sorting and storing information about a photograph. It can help you remember where and when a photo was taken, who was in it, and retain copyright information for professional photographers. Knowing how metadata is stored and making sure you only give up as much information as you need will keep your photos and your personal information secure.