News & Analysis

This startup is cyberstalking your cats to prove how easy it is to extract data from your pics

- July 28, 2014 3 MIN READ

There I was, admiring photos of cats online during MasterChef’s ad breaks, until I stumble upon the website I Know Where Your Cat Lives. Confused and curious, much like when a cat notices a potential threat (or in other words, a new piece of furniture) in the house, I decided to click ‘About’.

Turns out, Owen Mundy, a data analyst and artist, is cyberstalking the cats of the world. But for a purpose. I Know Where Your Cat Lives is a data experiment that politely reminds us how easy it is to extract our personal details from the photos we post online.

So, if you enjoy bombarding the internet with pictures of your feline babies, be warned that those pictures can be used to identify your cat’s address – and therefore your address.

Same goes for pictures of your children. Now, that’s a little creepier.

When you visit I Know Where Your Cat Lives, you’re presented with a world map with 1 million pictures of cats. The cats have been located by the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in their metadata, according to iknowwhereyourcatlives.com. Mundy was careful enough not to make other details available, like the names of the cat owners.

“The cats were accessed via publicly available APIs provided by popular photo sharing websites. The photos were then run through various clustering algorithms using a supercomputer at Florida State University in order to represent the enormity of the data source,” it says on the website of I Know Where Your Cat Lives. 

Mundy told Motherboard that the idea for the project spawned from the alarming realisation that Instagram had created a map of every photo of he had shared with the world – including those of his daughter.

“That scared me. So I thought, what’s the least creepy, most fun way to do this? It’s less likely someone is going to try to kidnap your cat, but, to a lot of people, their pets are like a child,” Mundy told Motherboard.

On the website, Mundy writes that the 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.” Although this sounds like exploitation, data allows startups to improve where it needs improving. It can help with business sustainability and scalability, which in turn is good for the economy. But with the good comes the bad.

Perhaps, one of the points Mundy is trying to make through this project is that privacy, to a certain extent, is a matter of personal disclosure – what we choose to make known of ourselves – but we need to be smart about it. In the internet era, websites are tracking our every move – not necessarily for sinister reasons, but there is a fair amount of technology-savvy, creepy fucks in the world who are out to do naughty things. So perhaps we ought to be a little cautious.

Interestingly, if you keep clicking ‘random cat’ on iknowwhereyourcatlives.com, eventually there will be a photo of an actual person who tagged their selfie with ‘cat’. This is because I Know Where Your Cat Lives collected the images by running a query for public photos tagged with cats from the APIs provided by Flickr, Twitpic, Instagram, and other social media platforms. That’s when things get a little uncomfortable.

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Mundy is currently trying to raise USD$2,500 on Kickstarter because apparently proving the ease of access to data on the web is not actually easy.

Should this project be a wake up call, will it have a strong enough impact on us to protest or change our privacy settings? Or are we just going to continue not giving a shit? I’d bet the latter. We’re becoming more and more comfortable with lack of privacy, because we appreciate the social and cultural returns – like the ability to enjoy social media freely. I’m sure it’ll all be good and well, until someone decides to kidnap us for ransom.