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What Is A Picture Worth?

Written By

Brian Halpin

We have all heard the expression, "A picture is worth a thousand words." referring to the idea that something difficult to explain can be conveyed with just a single image. But did you know that an image can provide much more information than those thousand words?  It is estimated that ten percent of all photos ever taken in the history of photography were taken in the last twelve months due to the ever increasing capabilities of mobile technology and influx of photo sharing social media sites.But what many don’t realize is when they share a digital photograph of themselves they are also sharing much more than the image itself.  Encoded in most image file formats is what is known as EXIF data.  EXIF data (Exchangeable Image File) is the file format used by most digital cameras and cell phones today consisting of the image itself (typically in JPEG format) along with metadata tags associated with that image.  As of 2014, a large majority of cameras and most mobile phones come equipped with a built in GPS receiver that stores the location information surrounding the origin of the image and saves this data as an EXIF metadata field.  Sites such as Flickr allow for the upload of geocoded pictures and you can also tag your location in photos once they’ve been uploaded.  Once posted to a website or blog the data associated with the photo allows for the ability to track the location where the photo was taken, in addition to information regarding the date and time of the photograph.  Some sites will strip this metadata, but others may not. 

So what’s the big deal?                                                                                     

As investigators this type of data tracking and metadata can prove to be very beneficial as well as detrimental, depending on where our clients stand.  We recently had a case where an individual alleged that he injured himself during a severe winter storm.  Digital images were provided by the injured person, purporting to show the weather conditions at the time of the injury. However, after a review of the metadata associated with the images taken, it was determined that the photos were taken at a different date and time than his injury occurred, putting into question his credibility. In another recent case, EXIF data proved the statements by one party to be true. In a contentious argument where Party A denied knowing that Party B had visited a particular business, Party B had not only the proof of the visit, but proof that Party A knew it! A text message was recovered from the iPhone of Party B that had a key attachment (a picture of the business). The image had the time and date it was taken as well as the geographic coordinates, which were applied to Google maps landing right at the foot of the business. So the next time you hear the phrase, a picture is worth a thousand words, remember it’s likely worth way more than a thousand!