Air Force officials caution against geotags, location-based services

By Tech. Sgt. Karen Tomasik: Air Force Public Affairs Agency

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Social media offers many airmen another way to keep in touch with colleagues, friends and family, but users need to be aware of the risks associated with technical tools that help them share information, officials said Jan. 7.

As more airmen and their family members use smartphones to take pictures and access social networking sites, they could be inadvertently posting information showing the exact geographic location of their home, work location, or daily travel patterns through technology known as “geotagging.”

“When airmen post photos to the web or post their location via location-based software applications such as ‘Foursquare’ and ‘Facebook Places,’ a savvy terrorist or criminal can easily track where they live and work, their route of travel and even determine if they’re away from home,” said Maj. Gen. John Weida, the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements. “These slips in innocent communication between, family, friends and colleagues can potentially cause an operations-security vulnerability.”

Because geotagging adds geographical identification to photographs, video, websites and SMS messages, people can tag a location on their photos, even if their camera or smartphone does not have a GPS function.

“Geotags and location-based software updates are just the latest challenge; a simple search for ‘Afghanistan’ on sites such as Flickr or Google Images can reveal thousands of location tagged photographs that have been uploaded,” Weida said. “We need to encourage all airmen, civilians, contractors, and family members to practice good OPSEC and remain aware of what information they are placing in the public domain.”

Many phones are automatically set up to capture this information by default, and users will have to navigate through their phone settings to disable this function.

Whether global contingency operations are classified or non-classified, the missions may be still be sensitive in nature and airmen should not tag uploaded photos with their locations, Weida said.

“When taking photos, airmen should be aware of the surrounding area, understanding that even objects in a photo can give away critical, unclassified information such as the location, type of personnel or type of weapons being used during the mission,” Weida explained. “Publishing photos of mission locations can be detrimental to mission success.”

The general added that airmen often take smartphones or MP3 players to deployed locations, possibly enabling adversaries to develop a composite of uploaded images and information through the spectrum of commercial programs available.

“Exposing airmen and unit locations gives the adversary an advantage that could impact the entire mission,” Weida said.

The general lauded the Army for its comprehensive product concerning geotagging that will also help educate the Air Force.

“It is well worth reading by airmen at every level,” Weida said.

For more information, see the top 10 tips for social media on page 17 of the “Social Media and the Air Force” handbook available at