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Contributing writer

Embedded data, not breasts, brought down hacker

Apr 26, 20123 mins
Application SecurityCybercrimeMaps and Navigation Software

FBI tracks down Higinio Ochoa using geo-tagged photos

The recent arrest of Higinio O. Ochoa III, of Galveston, Texas — allegedly a member of the Anonymous-linked CabinCr3w –generated considerable amusement (and some unbearably bad puns) when it was reported that the FBI tracked him down using photos he had posted of his girlfriend’s breasts (covered somewhat by a bikini top).

But the more interesting — and sobering — message of the case is that someone known as an elite hacker was busted because he forgot, or didn’t know, about the fact that EXIF data (location, camera type, and other image information) is included in every photo taken with a smartphone. He forgot, or didn’t know, that others can extract that information.

That the photos were a bit racy is incidental. They could have been artsy shots of a landscape or snapshots of a sporting event. The problem for somebody who is trying to cover his tracks is that the images are embedded with data that will tell an investigator where and when they were taken.

Ochoa, 30, who is charged by the FBI with hacking into US law enforcement agencies and posting online the home addresses for police officers, including those of more than 100 Los Angeles police officers, is a Linux administrator. Why he didn’t think about the risks of posting photos embedded with geo-tagging — common knowledge to most people who organize their photos by date and location on programs like iPhoto — is a question Ochoa is probably asking himself.

According to the FBI, Ochoa allegedly tweeted in February using the handle @Anonw0rmer, directing followers to a site where he had posted information stolen from various law enforcement agency websites.

At the bottom of the site was an image of a woman, now identified as his girlfriend, with a sign reading “PwNd by w0rmer & CabinCr3w

Investigators took those and other photos off several websites with references to w0rmer and found that they had been taken in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. They found that Ochoa had vacation photos on Facebook showing a recent trip to Australia, with a woman he said was his girlfriend who lives in that same suburb.

They were able to match the times and even some of the bathing suits the woman in the hacker photos was wearing.

And that was enough to lead to Ochoa’s arrest March 20.

Gary McGraw, CTO of the software security consulting firm Cigital, says it shouldn’t be shocking that a hacker was taken down by such a simple mistake. “Super, uber hackers sometimes act like regular consumers,” he says.

Still, writing in GCN (Government Computer News) on April 18, John Breeden II, says the episode should be a cautionary tale for anybody. “Knowing that GPS data is being captured in every photo you take should be in the back of your mind. If it can be used for nefarious purposes, you can bet someone will try,” he wrote.