Is Your Cat Giving Away Your Location?

by Lulu Chang

If you're like me and have taken and posted more pictures of your cat than of yourself, your significant other, or even food, you might've also unwittingly used your cat to broadcast your location to the world. Owen Mundy, an assistant professor of art at Florida State University, has created a fascinating website entitled "I Know Where Your Cat Lives," and it is just as creepy as it sounds.

Using kitty pictures from photo sharing websites like Flickr, Twitpic and Instagram, Mundy has developed a way to pinpoint your cat's exact location, and display it on a Google world map. And unless you and your cat don't live together, this probably means that Mundy can pinpoint where your location as well. And the scariest part of it all? It's completely legal.

Mundy doesn't use any particularly secretive data to find out where your cat lives. Rather, he simply visited these photo sharing sites and pulled completely public metadata from one million of the 15 million pictures currently tagged with the word "cat."

This data, which anyone can access, comes complete with information about the latitude and longitude of the picture's origin, which Mundy then uses to map out the cat's location. In order to protect the cat owner's privacy, however, Mundy is sure to first rid the photos of any identifying information, like names or even the photo's source. But the implications of the results are still pretty terrifying.

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Of course, not just anyone could run location specs on a population this large — Mundy had to employ the use of a supercomputer at FSU in order to finish analyzing the metadata, as using his personal computer to complete the geotagging and uploading process would've taken forever. Still, the easy availability of this information speaks volumes about our lack of privacy in the digital age.

According to Mundy, his website, which uses data that you willingly share with your followers, fellow users, and friends, can accurately determine a location with approximately 7.8 meters accuracy, or about 25 feet. While using cats as an identifier makes the whole thing seem a little more innocent, the same thing could ostensibly be done with pictures tagged with any other word, say "children" for example. A website entitled "I Know Where Your Kids Are" sounds a lot less enticing and a lot worse than "I Know Where Your Cat Is," even though they operate on the same principle.

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In fact, Mundy first got the idea for the project while he was on Instagram with his daughter. In an interview with The Daily Dot, Mundy said,

I was using Instagram to photograph my 3-year-old and one day I realized that the app had been recording and embedding the geographic coordinates in my backyard. I thought to myself, ‘I don't recall being asked by the app if I wanted to share this data.’ It was a creepy experience that I wanted to translate in a way that was equal parts scary and fun, but technically harmless.

And it is harmless, technically speaking — the only person who knows the identity of the cat is its owner, and Mundy has found that most people are so enamored with the project that they've asked to have their own cats added to the map. Part of the fascination, Mundy says, likely stems from "how tangible [the site] makes the privacy issue." After all, how many of us actually consider what our cat pictures reveal about our physical locations?

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Mundy's project gives new life to interesting questions about just how much information we're putting out on the Internet, and just how much of it we're doing knowingly. As Mundy points out, many social media sites do not explicitly ask permission when it comes to things like geotagging or data usage (hi, Facebook). While most of these issues are covered in the fine print, public awareness of the amount of personal information we broadcast on a day-to-day basis seems to be at an all-time low.

Geotagging, in particular, is problematic because of the degree of information it shares about the user. While Flickr and Instagram notify their customers, to some extent, about the existence of their geotagging capabilities, some third party apps (think Flipboard, Carousel, or InstaKitty) don't tell users that they're also using location algorithms. And the worst part? We'd probably never notice.

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And this is the goal of Mundy's project. According to his website, Mundy seeks to explore "the status quo of personal data usage by startups and international megacorps who are riding the wave of decreased privacy for all." In order to keep the site up, Mundy has launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the price of hosting the website. While Mundy is using "I Know Where Your Cat Is" to help cat stalkers around the world achieve their dreams, it might be time for the rest of us to be more vigilant about what we're sharing and who we're sharing it with.

Image: Getty Images (5)