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CameraTrace Tracks by Serial Number in Photos

Over 300 models of higher-end digital cameras embed the camera’s unique serial number into the metadata of every photo taken. If those photos are uploaded without that embedded tidbit being scrubbed, the data ends up being available for publicly posted photos at sites like Flickr and 500px. GadgetTrak has leveraged this fact with its just-out-of-testing service CameraTrace.

The service has been in testing for several months, and GadgetTrak has scoured photo-sharing services to collect data from billions of pictures (including all public Flickr photos since 2006) that represent 11 million unique camera serial numbers. The beta service allowed searching by serial number, and that remains as a free option in CameraTrace.

The full service, which requires a one-time $10 fee per camera registered, monitors photo-sharing sites and notifies you of newly posted pictures taken with your camera after you report it as being stolen. It can also be used to see whether your photos with embedded serial numbers have been used without your permission, assuming the unauthorized posters didn’t remove the metadata before posting.

GadgetTrak includes a metallic lost-and-found sticker to attach to your camera, to help those with good intentions to return your camera via a Web form that uses anonymous two-way communication to protect the privacy of both parties. As with laptops and phones, GadgetTrak also gets involved in helping to make a recovery by facilitating contacts with local police.

CameraTrace competes with a longer-running service offered in the UK called stolencamerafinder. That service provides free checking against its database by uploading a photo from which the metadata is extracted. A free account allows basic searching, while either a Pro (£4.99 per month, or about $7.80) or Business (£99.99 per month, or roughly $157) account allows more-extensive searches and provides more-advanced features.


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Comments about CameraTrace Tracks by Serial Number in Photos
(Comments are closed.)

Ron Manke  2011-12-28 10:20
I am a photographer, and was unaware this was available in the metadata. Thanks for the article!
Mark H. Anbinder  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-28 20:52
I love the idea of this service, but I get the feeling they're still not quite ready for prime time. Countless hundreds of photos taken with my Nikon D40 are online, including many that show up prominently in Google Images searches, but their search fails to find a single one.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-12-28 22:04
Did you confirm that those images (when you download them) have your serial number embedded? And did you know that some serial numbers on the camera don't match the EXIF information? Try looking at all the serial data (which could be three or more items) embedded in an image you've taken that you can download from one of the places you're talking about, and see what it says.
Doug Grinbergs  2011-12-31 13:01
FWIW, of an estimated 1500 Flickr images taken with my Canon 7D, CameraTrace found just 87 images with its serial number - all from my account.
Doug Grinbergs  2011-12-31 13:08
At least in iPhoto 8 ('09), AFAICT, there's no way to search for non-standard EXIF data, e.g. camera serial # for a smart album, and no way to display same. (If there are ways to do this, that would be good to know.)

One can, however, drag an iPhoto image to Preview and view the extended data in the EXIF tab. This still appears to be a subset of the data shown on the Flickr image's EXIF page.
smenzel  2011-12-31 22:11
I may be missing something but there appears to be a disconnect somewhere along the way. My original images (.NEF) all have serial numbers in the meta data (Schema > aux:SerialNumber) along with ImageNumber, LenseID, etc. After processing them in CS5 and uploading to Flickr or 500px, the SerialNumber data no longer appears within the meta data. All of the data, including SerialNumber, resides in the JPG prior to uploading.

Searching for the serial numbers of my two SLRs yields only two results, both of which are for someone else's images taken with a completely different camera.
Peter U  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-01-02 18:50
I was also wondering what kind of processing removes those serial numbers. Almost all online photos are scaled and use some compression. Does that affect the meta data and if yes, how?
Emily L. Ferguson  2012-01-02 18:14
Since nearly every online image service and prefabricated template strips the metadata out of every image, this sort of thing is useless in most cases. We don't really need a search feature anyway, as google will do the same thing. What we need is an industry wide committment to eliminating all tools that remove metadata from intellectual property online. We needed that 10 years ago and clearly with SOPA and the likes of the Creative Commons movement and microstock well into the forefront the basic idea of protecting and making tracable intellectual property is desperately out of fashion.
Glenn Fleishman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-01-02 18:56
But Flickr and other sharing services don't. Often, from what I can tell from recovery stories, a camera is stolen (or “found”), and then sold, sometimes through one or more hands. The ultimate buyer posts pictures unsuspectingly, which are caught by a service like this.

With the right proof, the victim can work through police to get a stolen item returned even if the current owners believes he or she purchased it legitimately.
smenzel  2012-01-03 10:56
There's no doubt that this could prove incredibly useful. The problem appears to be with how image hosting services handle meta data. They're either stripping the meta data entirely (a la Facebook) or selectively removing fields. Even Flickr loses some of the meta data. Either that or they're selectively choosing not to display certain fields.

All of my final JPGs (from the SLRs) contain the aux:SerialNumber field yet, when uploaded to Flickr or 500px, the field vanishes.