Experiment, Data, Privacy

Returning Instagram photos to their locations

We live in a time, where cameras are ubiquitous. It is not because there are a few surveillance cameras installed here and there. It is because cameras are so cheap and tiny that almost everyone carries one around in their pocket.

We are documenting our lives to share those moments with our family, friends and the rest of the world. Photos are more than ever a proof of existence. Pics or it didn’t happen.

Photo sharing and privacy

More than half a billion photos are shared publicly every day. When cameras even find their way into watches, glasses and other wearables, it is out of question that this number will only continue to rise.

The urge to document everything might be satisfied by generating a continuous life log. But when everyone is documenting everything and shares it with everyone, how does this affect our privacy and mutual social behavior? How do we protect ourselves from becoming too transparent?

Recent insights into the practice of the NSA have shown that we have already lost control over our data because we did not care enough about protecting it in the past. There might have been strangers looking at our personal data, but as long as we do not notice, it does not seem to affect our daily lives.

But the NSA is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it does not take much to dive into the lives of others and find out where they live and who they are.

Digital to Analog: Printing Instagram photos

While collecting photos from Instagram, I realised that there are many photos showing trivial things at home: food, cats, parcels and selfies. I was wondering why people share those photos with their exact geolocation pointing to their homes.

Don’t they bother? Are they not aware of the fact that the geolocation sharing was once switched on in the app? Am I the only one who thinks this might be a problem?

I was curious to see how people react when their own photos are extracted from the internet and returned as prints to their neighborhood. Therefore I looked for publicly available photos from Instagram that were obviously taken at the user’s home.

Then, I used the embedded geolocation to find out where those people live and left printed copies of those photos nearby the original location. To get feedback, I took photos of each print in public space and uploaded them back to Instagram where the original photographers had been notified.

Serving those photos under the pseudo @Sofortbildautomat, I also commented on each photo, stating that I had left a free print of the user’s photo nearby.

In reaction to that, people limited the visibility of their Instagram profiles and changed their real names to nicknames. A few users actually tried to find their photo — some were successful, some even thankful. Others got angry about this experiment.

Although the scope was very limited and I have only reached out to a dozen people, the reactions have proven that this might be an effective way to raise awareness for a loss of control over one’s own data. Furthermore, this method triggered real change for individuals, because they suddenly felt affected by an issue that they had only seen on media before.

Sousveillance – In Focus of Wearers and Collectors from Florian Schulz on Vimeo.

This experiment was part of my Bachelor Thesis “Sousveillance: Im Fokus der Träger und Sammler” (PDF) including the chapters Surveillance, Acceleration of Photography, Photosharing in the Digital Age, Photography in Public Space, Wearable Cameras, Authenticity of the Mass, Remembering and Forgetting. Supervised by Prof. Boris Müller and Prof. Winfried Gerling.

Originally published in October 2013. Numbers of shared photos has most likely increased since then.