How much can metadata reveal? Just ask John McAfee

1 min read
Lexie

Hi, I'm Lexie! I write about information security, Bitcoin, and privacy.

the word metadata in html tags partly conceiled by empty space

Metadata can often reveal more about a file than the actual data. A 2012 manhunt illustrates this point. The case concerned John McAfee, famous for the antivirus company named after him and for being the presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party in 2016. These credentials didn’t shield him from the brutal effects of ignoring your metadata…

Back in 2012, McAfee was living in Belize when his neighbor was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head. For some reason, McAfee was scared he might become a suspect in the investigation. Possibly high on bath salts and deeply paranoid, McAfee chose to flee the friendly inquiries of the police and hide in the jungle instead.

McAfee did keep in touch with a few journalists from Wired and Vice, though. Vice’s then-editor-in-chief, Rocco Castoro, and Wired photographer Robert King followed McAfee around for a few days, posting online updates like this one.

The pictures, taken with an iPhone 4S, recorded the trio’s movement through the Belize jungle. Their location was attached to every picture, and what they didn’t realize was that this data did not simply disappear after the image was uploaded. While it was invisible to the human eye, it still remained part of the metadata of the image files.

As the metadata contained the GPS coordinates of every image that was taken, the authorities were led straight to McAfee.

Anyone can see the metadata associated with McAfee’s pics by opening the image files with Julien Voisin’s Metadata Anonymisation Toolkit:

mcafee's metadata
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Entering the coordinates from the picture into Google Maps, we can see that the trio were at a luxurious resort called the Mar Marine Yacht Club in Guatemala, not far from the Belize border.

Some services do remove the metadata from your files automatically when you upload them, but it is hard to predict which services do that, and which metadata they will remove.

Software to delete metadata 

Depending on your platform, several tools exist that allow you to inspect and remove metadata from your files.

Remove metadata to protect your anonymity

We very much recommend you check each image before you upload it, especially in situations where you want to conceal your identity. Better not to rely on software to do this automatically!

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.