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The hidden data your photos are giving to criminals and how to protect yourself

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CINCINNATI -- You are being tracked.

Everywhere you go – the time and date you’re there, who you’re with, where you are – is all recorded and uploaded to remote servers.

But it's not a government satellite that’s keeping tabs on you -- it's a tracking device attached to your hip. It’s your camera phone.

A digital picture is worth much more than a thousand words. With every click, you're unwittingly recording a treasure trove of information -- powerful tools for investigators and criminals alike.

New Albany, Ind., resident Keri Pendleton learned this the hard way.

Pendleton left a status update on Facebook that said she wouldn't be home because she was going to a concert in nearby Louisville at 8 p.m.

What she didn’t know: For six months, someone she became friends with on Facebook was “casing” her.

"They took basically everything that we had posted pictures of," Pendleton said. "You see him go through my purse. You see them take the two laptops that are on the kitchen table."

The thieves shopped online first -- picking the items they would steal from Pendelton using photos she snapped in her home and posted on Facebook.

"I pulled up pictures that I had posted on Facebook with the laptops, with the plasma in the background, with our rack of electronics in our basement, and that's what they went for," she said.

But Pendelton’s story isn’t the only way pictures have provided crucial information to strangers.

Every time you snap a photo, you're capturing more than just something or someone -- you're also recording an extraordinary amount of data hidden inside the photo itself.

This information is called exif data -- or exchangeable image file data – and it includes the date, the exact time the photo was taken, the camera model and serial number, even latitude and longitude.

Saving exif data is a standard on almost all digital cameras and camera phones.

A photo can give you the where, what, who and when -- everything someone would need to track your every move, all downloaded to your phone or uploaded to the Internet.

“You could have a person that begins to stalk an individual based on that information," Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) special agent Vickie Angelopoulos said.

Angelopoulos and other agents are seeing more and more cases where victims were targeted using exif data hidden within their own photos.

There are many free, easy to use tools and phone apps that allow a user to extract exif data from your photos.

“It's not hard to come by for someone to do that, just by the click of a button,” Angelopoulos said.

BCI forensic expert Mitchell Machor said exif data extraction apps make it “extremely easy” for a criminal to figure out who you are, where you are and the best time to strike.

"If you put a picture online, someone can pull it offline, run it through an application like that, which is absolutely free, and be able to tell exactly where you were and when your were there and who took that photograph," Machor said.

The I-Team found photos posted online by U.S. soldiers showing an operating American base in Afghanistan.

Using a free app, anyone is able to map the precise location of the military outpost because GPS coordinates were embedded in the photo's exif data.

“It’s as simple as right-clicking and 'locate spot on map,'" Machor said.

While exif data can be used to help criminals, BCI agents have harnessed this weapon to fight them.

Machor said a suspect's camera phone is more useful than fingerprints or DNA at a crime scene.

"A phone being left at the scene can be extremely valuable, almost more than anything else," Machor said.

"It's that big of a game changer," Angelopoulos added.

In an online forum in 2007, a student anonymously posted a photo of himself with pipe bombs and a warning he would detonate them on the anniversary of Sept. 11 at Pflugerville High School in Texas.

When other online users examined the hidden exif data of his photos, it revealed the owner of the camera.

Using that data, a SWAT team was able to locate and arrest the student before school started the next day.

Computer security expert John McAfee was betrayed by the exif data in a photo while "on the run" from homicide detectives in Belize.

Instead of hiding out in the jungle as he claimed, a map created with exif data from one of his photos showed he was actually hanging out by a resort pool in Guatemala.

Along with McAfee’s precise location, the exif data showed the photograph was taken with an iPhone 4S at 12:26 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2012. That exif data can be viewed here, using a free online tool.

Experts say exif data can even help you find a stolen camera.

The websites CameraTrace.com and StolenCameraFinder.com crawl the web looking for serial numbers of stolen cameras and phones hidden in the exif data of online photos.

Basically, if someone steals your camera phone or digital camera and then takes a photo and posts it to sites like Flickr, these free tools can track the thief.

What about Facebook, Twitter and Craigslist? Do photos there still contain this hidden data?

Not anymore.

This information is so dangerous in the wrong hands, most social networking sites are now stripping all exif data from uploaded photos.

But the latest operating system for all Apple iPhones, iOS 7, tracks and records all the places you visit by default to provide better location-based data. Each image you snap has highly-detailed exif data embedded within so photos can be grouped by date and place.

However, Android and Apple both have geotag blocking features. For information on how to block location data on you iPhone, click here. For Android, click here.

For a free exif data eraser -- a tool that will wipe all hidden data in your photo -- click here.

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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