Are You Missing Geolocation Artifacts?

By Chad Tilbury on November 17, 2011 in Computer Forensics, Geolocation — Leave a comment

Geolocation is booming and so are the artifacts left behind by the multitude of services adding this feature.  But just how likely are you to find geolocation artifacts during a digital forensics examination?    If you are reviewing mobile devices (including laptops), the simple answer is: very likely.  The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently released the results of their 2011 study on mobile and social geolocation services.   As expected, smartphone owners topped the list of users most likely to use geosocial and location-based services.  With over 400 million smartphones estimated to be sold in 2011, the percentages can only go up.  Interestingly, almost 30% of non-smartphone users also indicated they use geolocation services.

Geolocation Service Usage

I was happy to see Pew asked respondents about their geolocation preferences.  Many services do not have a one-time “use my location” feature or encourage users to save their location sharing settings long-term (see Twitter  instructions below).  This fire-and-forget approach can result in more interesting artifacts as users no longer consider the possibility that their location is being tagged to an action.

Twitter Geolocation

Twitter Geolocation Dialog

Automatic location tagging was employed by 14% of social media users.  My guess is this is a lower bound as many of the respondents likely did not know or remember whether they had turned on location reporting.

Geosocial Services Automatic Tagging

Over 80% of smartphone users sent a picture or video to someone and 45% posted them online.  What percentage of those users are aware of EXIF data?  Or even care?  Finally, I found the the location-based service breakdown by age to be somewhat interesting.  As the technology (and its usefulness) becomes more ingrained with each generation, we should expect geolocation data to become ubiquitous.

Geolocation Services and Geo-tagging by Age

 

Source: Pew Internet and American Life Project

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