Website Shows How Metadata Can be Used and Abused by Plotting Out 1 Million Cat Photos

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Online activity can often create an easy-to-follow breadcrumb trail that allows anyone to piece together location and identity details, yet this is something people often forget when having fun online.

I Know Where Your Cat Lives is a site that uses the location metadata of cat photos innocently posted online can be used to plot where those cats are located around the world.

And it illustrates how publicly available data can be used for unintended purposes.

This site was developed by Owen Mundy, an Associate Professor in the Department of Art at Florida State University, with assistance from FSU undergraduate student Alissa McShane.

The images tagged with the word “cat” were accessed through publicly available APIs, finding images tagged “cat”. Mundy was able to find around 15 million such photos, then took one-million of those photos, ran them through various clustering algorithms on an FSU supercomputer, and plotted these pictures on a world map.

Mundy explains the purposes of the project: “This project explores two uses of the internet: the sociable and humorous appreciation of domesticated felines, and the status quo of personal data usage by startups and international megacorps who are riding the wave of decreased privacy for all. This website doesn’t visualize all of the cats on the net, only the ones that allow you to track where their owners have been.”

New York City, for instance, has nearly 14,000 cats plotted so that they can be seen street by street. And while I Know Where Your Cat Lives is a relatively benign example of how the internet can be used to find personal information, it helps show how easily information can be collected for more nefarious purposes.

The impetus of the project was Mundy’s experience on Instagram, he said in an interview with Motherboard. He was creeped out when his Instagram photos were creating a map of where he and his family had been – and that this information was publicly available. He said he hopes that this website helps draw attention to the hidden data that we so readily publish.

Given the traffic going to the website and its enormous data sets, Mundy’s team is running a kickstarter to pay for its web hosting. For those interested, it currently runs on Amazon EC2 using an c3.2xlarge instance with eight cores and 15GB which costs $0.420 per hour.

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