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GPS technology puts soldiers at risk

Troops asked to turn phones' geo tagging off

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POSTED: September 22, 2012 10:14 a.m.
Photo by Randy C. Murray/

Randy Awtrey, a sales representative for Verizon, says customers need to be aware that the gps feature on phones can reveal where a photo of video was taken

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Soldiers and their family members should be aware of geo tagging made possible through global-positioning-system technology included in smartphones and social media, Verizon sales representative Randy Awtrey said.
Geo tagging is marking a video, picture or other media with its location, Awtrey said. He said when users upload pictures using a phone, it can automatically embed location coordinates within the picture — unless the GPS feature is turned off.
“There are at least three warnings that come with every smartphone now that warns you your location is about to be recorded,” said Awtrey, explaining soldiers and family members could put themselves at risk by leaving this feature on. “I’ve had customers who were buying (smartphones) that wanted to know how to turn off the GPS feature.
“You can turn it all off at once, or you can turn off individual settings, sort of like the way you control the default privacy settings on your Facebook account.”
Awtrey said he and his family once called a police station to ask for directions while on vacation in Florida. The GPS feature on his basic cell phone told the station exactly where he was, and he promptly was given directions.
He supposed the GPS feature could tell a terrorist where a soldier’s unit is, or it could tell a criminal where a soldier’s spouse lives, where his children go to school and that he is deployed.
According to a March 7 article on www.army.mil, soldiers took pictures with their smartphones of new helicopters arriving at their base in Iraq in 2007, then uploaded the pictures to the Internet.
Using data captured from their intercepted messages, the enemy determined the exact location of the helicopters. Four AH-64 Apaches subsequently were destroyed by mortar fire.
“Communication with family and friends is vitally important to the morale of our soldiers here in Afghanistan,” said Lt. Col. Earl W. Rilington Jr., commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion.
“However, we must maintain operational security to protect our soldiers and prevent compromise of ongoing mission planning and operations.”
Rilington explained that official communication — such as casualty information, medical emergencies and troop movement — is channeled through units’ forward and rear chain of command. Unofficial information — such as family events and local activities back on Fort Stewart — can be posted on unofficial sources like Facebook and Twitter, he said.
The commander noted, however, the Army uses preventive measures to scrutinize photos and written material in order to deny the enemy specific information about its mission and security procedures.
“We encourage our families to communicate with the chain of command if there is a question regarding (operation security) prior to posting material through unofficial media,” Rilington said.
Regional Command-South engineer Maj. Robertrel Sachi said GPS coordinates in smartphones and social-media sites can be embedded by latitude and longitude notation or with decimal-degree notation.
“(This) type of information has the potential to give an exact grid coordinate to some critical infrastructure on (forward operating bases),” Sachi explained. “The danger here is that an enemy could potentially use the information for more accurate indirect fire or targeting specific buildings for infiltration and exploitation.”
Sachi said the Army is “focused” on stopping geo tagging in Afghanistan, noting that soldiers are briefed about the threat of geo tagging through smartphones, cameras, tablets and GPS watches.
“A lot of the education focuses on taking and posting pictures on social-media sites,” he said, calling geo tagging “dangerous” to coalition military in theater. “It is for this reason that all soldiers are highly encouraged to turn off geo tagging on all devices that can do it, and (they are) ordered not to take pictures in certain areas.”
For information about how to turn off the GPS feature on smartphones, Awtrey said customers should talk to their wireless-service providers. There are also websites like www.ICanStalkU.com that offer step-by-step instructions for turning off GPS features.

 

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