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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Illustrating the Power of Metadata With Cats

The New York Times reports:

Using cat pictures — that essential building block of the Internet — and a supercomputer, a Florida State University professor has built a site that shows the locations of the cats (at least at some point in time, given their nature) and, presumably, of their owners. 
Owen Mundy, an assistant professor of art who studies the relationship between data and the public, created “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” as a way of demonstrating “the status quo of personal data usage by startups and international megacorps who are riding the wave of decreased privacy for all,” Mr. Mundy wrote in a post about the site.

Mundy's website can be accessed here, where you can randomly generate cat photos and view their locations. The website also contains a page with charts that illustrate cat photo rates by country, state-by-state breakdowns of cat picture rates in the United States, and even city-by-city breakdowns.

Mundy was able to put this site together by simply downloading a sample of one million publicly available pictures and placing them on a map using GPS data that many cameras attach to images which are then shared online. This GPS information is an example of "metadata" that websites, businesses, and the government can track and collect.

For some websites, the government needs to obtain permission to access personal information. In the case of the cat photo website, however, Mundy writes that the images he used and their information was publicly available on Flickr, Twitpic, Instagram, and other sites. I would imagine that if Mundy can obtain the information as easily as he did, the government would be able to access this information without much trouble as well.

As a general rule, those who wish to avoid prosecution should avoid posting photos of illegal activity online. Moreover, I would not be surprised if the NSA ended up devoting a team of specialists to track this new website's cat photos and locations, so criminals should be especially careful about posting photos of illegal activity that also include cats or that are tagged "cat."


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