Home > Public Domain Data > Potential Harm from Geotagging Photographs

Potential Harm from Geotagging Photographs

Recently, National Geographic staff wrote an interesting and thoughtful piece about the potential harm of “over-loving” a place resulting from tourists posting geotagged photographs:   https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/when-why-not-to-use-geotagging-overtourism-security/

As a geographer, I confess that I have mixed feelings about this.   As someone keenly interested in the protection of natural places such as caves (as a lifelong caver and a geographer), riparian zones, beaches, lava fields, prairies, woodlands, and many other special places, part of me wants to see few visitors tramping on those places.  Hence, I see the point that the article makes about overexposure to places, whether from guidebooks, tweets, Instagram posts, Google map posts, or other means.  But as someone who at the same time wants to know about these places so I can too can explore them, I appreciate the crowdsourcing happening on our planet–the sharing of ordinary and extraordinary places on our planet for the sheer joy of them, and telling others about them, from ordinary people–citizen scientists.  Does a solution exist reconciling these two viewpoints?  Please share in the comments section.

On the potential downside of geotagging photos, we wrote a synopsis of the following story a few years ago; in this case, potential harm to rare species from location-tagged data:  https://spatialreserves.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/potential-harm-to-rare-species-from-location-tagged-data/

–Joseph Kerski, showing one of my favorite places and viewpoints on the planet, below.  Should I share where I took this photo so others can go there and enjoy the view?  Or just leave it untagged so only a few will visit?


Mystery location. 

  1. March 23, 2020 at 12:40 am

    Definitely makes one think… the ingenious ways criminals used technology, they take a technology that is created to protect the vulnerable flora and fauna in our world and they then turn that same technology into a threat against the flora and fauna… a classic case of how the best of human nature is used by the worst of human nature… should we stop our advancing technology? Absolutely not!!! We will have to find ways to combat these criminals … find ways to hinder their use of the technology… I’m not sure of the logistics on the ground, surely we can find ways to protect these endangered areas, flora and fauna. On a slightly off point example.. I live in a beautiful coastal fishing village in the southwest of Ireland, we are currently in the myths of the covid19 epidemic.. we are a tiny population with vulnerable people(vulnerable people including my own son who is immune suppressed, yet our little village was swallowed up by cars driving in all day parking and leaving no room for anyone and the beaches filled with people walking in the open air … the complete opposite to social distancing and no doubt bringing the virus into the tiny community) Human nature is selfish … should that stop technology? Absolutely not! Should geotagging stop? Absolutely not! We simply need to find ways to overcome the selfish behaviors. As you said in your 2017 article:

    “ Data can be used for good and for ill. It is my hope that articles such as this raise awareness so that data and tool providers build safeguards that make it difficult for people who seek to use data for ill to access that data, while still moving toward the goals of open data access for enabling smart decisions“

    Thanks for the article … It made me think about and consider an issue I had not thought of, awareness is half the battle.. your raising of awareness will ensure the people with the skills to develop the technology will also find solutions.

    • josephkerski
      March 23, 2020 at 3:22 pm

      Jennifer, thanks for sharing and for your thoughtful reflections ! –Joseph K

  2. Douglas W Olcott, PhD (archaeology), M.A. GIS/Remote Sensing
    March 23, 2020 at 5:50 pm

    Joseph, As a former archaeologist (and still a volunteer archaeologist trying to protect Native American sites), I am familiar with and in favor of restrictions on publishing the location of sites that could be permanently destroyed or damaged by vandals or just people without knowledge of the cultural or environmental importance of the site. Images tagged to a very precise location at these sites should therefore be discouraged and damage to sites should be better publicized including on social media where most people now seem to get their travel information.

    • josephkerski
      March 23, 2020 at 5:53 pm

      Thanks Dr Olcott – for reading, and for your thoughtful comments here. I work with tribal governments too and am a co author on the Tribal GIS Esri Press book. Definitely many sensitivity issues there–archaeology, tribal sacred sites, and in the caving community that I am a part of. –Joseph K

  3. Andrew F McDonagh MS GIS BS Parks Recreation and Tourism
    March 23, 2020 at 11:37 pm

    Hello Dr. Olcott, Joseph and Jennifer,
    Great and interesting discussion I have been torn with!
    As someone who used to write a blog for exploring greater Boston, and has now spent a lot of my time in the Southwest and Southeast, I think going forwards my goals will be to provide more education and general rather than specific geolocation tagging.
    As a caver too, our Grotto has policies preventing the sharing of locations online, and limits that to private messaging and pointing towards the sources. When I told a friend about a way to visit caves in the Southeast Cave Conservancy network, they disregarded my plea to follow the rules and bring proper equipment to keep them safe, and prevent a rescue needed.
    Back in Vermont, my local friends closely guarded the locations of where they harvested wild ramps and fiddleheads for cooking each Spring, only displaying the name of a County rather than the patch of woods or river. I belong to various Petroglyph groups on Facebook where the only locations provided are on a grid that breaks down the entire SouthWest to eight general regions which I think is smart.
    My last is example is the love/hate relationship I have with a Los Angeles hiking account and blog, which has tons of amazing hikes, canyons, waterfalls all in one place. I have learned mile by mile directions, and aerial locations of spots that had no marked trails, and are now seeing lots of traffic, and folks parking in illegal residential areas for access.
    The term “gate-keeping” gets thrown around when some on Instagram refuse to say where exactly their photos are taken. I would like in the future to see more, and myself do generalized locations, and point viewers of my posts towards authentic sources to do their own research. Whether that is the U.S. Forest Service website where they can learn rules on off-leash dogs and parking permits, a group that takes hikers on educational sustainable food foraging jaunts, or the Cave Conservancies where they may see places to donate towards more conservation – the Nature Conservancy tends to do a good job blending its messaging of recreation and protection.
    Having mapped recreational impact and carrying capacities in sensitive areas where lottery permit systems are an extreme measure but work to limit damage on the most pristine resources, I think there could be a discussion on how landowners (federal/state) could petition Instagram to remove certain geotags, or limit the scale to which photos are tagged in sensitive areas? (Similar to reporting sensitive content online) That is certainly a rabbit whole of which I would love to dig up some answers on strategies that could work. Thank you for the discussion! – Andrew

    • josephkerski
      March 23, 2020 at 11:55 pm

      Thank you Andrew for the thoughtful and, I think, important points that you shared. It is indeed a difficult set of issues. I have been reading some nonfiction books of people’s travels (the latest, Around the World in 80 Trains, in which the authors state frequently about the massive amounts of tourists in (Tibet, elsewhere) … again, as a geographer, I want people to experience cultures, places, people… contributes to global understanding, but how can we do it in a more sensitive way? That is in part why I am a geography educator–the education aspect really appeals to me. It may be, as we state in the Public Domain data book, a case where the technology moves faster than laws, and also faster than sensitive practice and customs. Again thank you. –Joseph Kerski

  4. charles convis
    March 26, 2020 at 6:18 am

    Hi Joseph, There is a way to think about photography that I’ve been sensitized to from decades of work supporting tribal organizations as well as photographing professionally, and that is ownership. In the tribal context, photographing a sacred area does not confer the rights of ownership of that area. Those rights, and the accordant permission over those images, should belong to the people for whom it is sacred. When I photograph people, the permission to distribute those photographs needs to involve the people pictured. What this leads me to, in considering photographs of incredible landscapes, is the likely lack of a readily-identifiable owner whose permission might be obtained. In such cases, perhaps it’s the duty of a photographer to act as a responsible steward or curator of that image, and that site, and to be thoughtful about where and how that image might be distributed, considering as best as one can the best long-term interests of that ecosystem. Pro photographers constantly have to obtain model releases for photographs of people, specifying the relevant rights & protections of each party. Seems like it might be time for nature to have standing in cases like that. Maybe it’s nothing more than a pledge by the photographer to use the images in the best interests of the site & it’s protection & conservation. The North American Nature Photographers Assn has a well-written ethics statement that covers some of this topic: https://www.nanpa.org/wp-content/uploads/Ethical-Field-Practices-Revised-3-2018.pdf
    regards, charles convis

    • josephkerski
      March 26, 2020 at 4:01 pm

      Charles, thanks for your thoughtful and important comments here and for the NANPA link. –Joseph Kerski

  5. March 26, 2020 at 4:06 pm

    Perhaps the community would be interested in our post from six years ago – but still relevant – on this topic – does posting pictures compromise privacy? https://spatialreserves.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/compromising-privacy-while-posting-pictures/ including a discussion on “I know where your cat lives”! –Joseph Kerski

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