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Are Embedded Image Properties More Dangerous Than Helpful?

By Miroslav B. Bonchev
Some time ago, I watched a program on YouTube in which the host, Alex Jones, was complaining about how bad Microsoft is, and the evil that they do with their new technologies. In particular, he was very unhappy with the metadata which modern cameras embed in digital pictures. This metadata includes the geographic location, where the shot was taken, time, direction, camera type, make, and all kinds of other data related to the shot. His reasoning was that when one uploads such photo on the internet, then thieves may see the object on the photo, e.g. a nice car, and from the geographic location embedded in the picture, find the object and steal it.

While I agree with Mr. Jones on many issues, such as the danger of vaccines, here I have to disagree with him. In both cases my reasoning is based on what we know about information. I will comment on the reasons why I believe, from a software engineering point of view, that vaccines are a terrible, unscientific, and dangerous idea in another article. Here I will comment about metadata embedded in images.

The properties embedded in a picture as metadata are only properties which exist in the context of the picture, therefore from an information standpoint; the best place to store them is the picture itself. Suppose that a photographer takes a shot and desires to record its geographic location, and the camera that he used. If these properties are not recorded in the picture they have to be recorded in separate file or files, but consider how difficult, confusing and error-prone it would be if one had to juggle with 5000 pictures and their property files.

When a person takes photos, they will usually store them on their computer. The typical problem with this is how to store the pictures, or rather where. Most people classify the pictures by event – e.g. "Holiday 2012", thus they create a subfolder with an appropriate name and place all pictures from the current event in that folder. However, there are many other classification possibilities e.g. by date, by location, by camera that was used to take the picture, by content on the pictures, or by one or more of the many other properties relating to the picture. This richness of properties that a picture has, and their complex relationships, cannot be represented properly by the simple tree-like directory structure where the pictures are stored, even if classified in some manner. The problem becomes apparent when one attempts to find the pictures with a particular property which was not considered when storing them. For example, if one wished to view their pictures from this year’s holiday, they would just open that folder and see the pictures there. However if they wish to see all pictures from the last 5 holidays taken with one of the 4 family cameras then there is a problem. Here is why the properties embedded into the pictures are so important. Using software such as the Find Files and Folders functionality of the Locator module of Act On File, one can create a search query to reflect any required set of properties. The way it works is simple and powerful. One first creates one or more Find operands representing the properties of the picture which they require, e.g. the width of the picture, its height, resolution, palette, camera, geographic location, time of the shot, direction, etc. Then they create a simple logical expression using the names of the find operands (properties that they look for) and start the search. The result is finding all pictures containing the required set of properties. For example, one can create three find operands; one for geographic location; specifying the Equator, one for time; specifying late afternoon, and one for direction; specifying west. Then enter and execute a search query requesting to find all pictures for which the three find operands are true. The result will be all pictures with the sunset on the Equator which they have. A more typical search might be a search in which one finds all pictures with a particular dimension, e.g. find all pictures with sizes between 500x400 and 550x440 pixels.

Clearly, having all known properties of a picture embedded in it is the correct approach and the way things should be. Software such as Act On File can help utilize these properties in the best way. As far as uploading is concerned, then I wish to pose a question – is it really wise and necessary to post our details online?! Secondly, if it is really necessary, then one could simply re-save the image as a bitmap file using the standard Windows Paint software and upload the bitmap since a plain bitmap image does not contain metadata.

Act On File can be downloaded from: http://www.mbbsoftware.com/Products/Act-On-File/2012/Download.aspx.
Miroslav B. Bonchev
5-th August 2012
London, England
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