I like cats. I mean, really, really, really like cats. I grew up with cats throughout my childhood and I've always lived with them as an adult and at one point I wanted to be a cat veterinarian. (Yes, vets who specialize in cats are a thing.) I take endless pictures of my cats (scene from a college photo class: 'Is this another picture of your f**king cat?'). When I can't take pictures of my cats, I take pictures of other people's cats.
I am That Person who, upon spying a cat pretty much anywhere, immediately goes "kitty!" and veers off in search of the cat. I am not happy until I have petted the cat. I am inconsolable when kitty runs away and does not want to be petted.
My Instagram feed is basically 1/3 food, 1/3 cats, and 1/3 books. Cats, as we know, rule the Internet. You can't swing a...uh, you know...without hitting some cat-related listicle, silly cat video, or adorable cat photo. Basically, the Internet is a catnip-sodden dream for those of us who are maybe a little too besotted with felines.
I'm not the only one at xoJane who's cat-owned.
(I'm so happy that my images file is FILLED WITH CATS right now, you don't even know.)
Being, as I am, a huge cat fan, I Know Where Your Cat Lives should be right up my alley. It's a data sample of one million cat pictures taken worldwide, mapped against their location data. In other words, if you took a picture of your cat and you shared your location data, it might be on this website.
Go ahead and look for your cat -- don't worry, I did the same thing when I read about the project -- even though I have location services turned off and don't share location data when I share images of my cats (or other cats).
The project is, on the surface, kind of hilarious, in that you can hit "random cat" for hours and see cats all over the world, doing all kinds of things. But it's also much more scary and complicated, something the founders freely acknowledge is part of the point: "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."
Let's take a break to look at another cat picture:
Many people don't think about what they're doing when they leave location services on and share location data. All of that information is embedded in the metadata of what they do: Posting images, sharing status updates, and so much more. In the world of constantly accessible tech and easily understood APIs, that data can be uncovered, used, and exploited by pretty much anyone who feels so inclined.
The founders of I Know Where Your Cat Lives estimate that their data pins locations to within 7.8 meters. If you take a picture of your cat in your house with your location services turned on, it's going to map directly to your house.
I have location services turned off because I'm a curmudgeonly, cranky, distrustful, paranoid sod. But also because I've had credible threats to my life, and I'm not really inclined to provide people with easy access to information like where I am at any given time, let alone my home address. I like sharing my cats (and my life) with my followers, but the thought that someone could use a silly picture of my cat to find my house is...troubling.
But not everyone thinks about how location services are used, or considers the potential consequences. Do you want stalkers to be able to find you? Are you concerned that a former abusive partner could locate you by following you on a social network? These are issues we need to be thinking about in an increasingly interconnected and technologically reliant era, especially when we start talking about culpability and user protection.
Should sites like Instagram be having clearer warnings about the consequences of sharing location data? (It's not in their best interests, because they use this data for targeting advertising, demographic studies, and related activities.) Should users have more control over their location data, such as the ability to readily see how their location data appears to others, and how quickly users can dig down to find more detailed information?
On I Know Where Your Cat Lives, user data is obscured, and the goal isn't actually to provide stalkers with a massive database through cats worldwide. You'd have to be dedicated (and know the cat you were looking for) to use the site to trace someone -- it would be faster to just locate the person of interest on another network and access metadata posted with photos and status updates.
But the site is a stark commentary on the frightening aspects of the open world we live in.