Instagram: A Dream App for Stalkers and Burglars

April 12, 2013 by John Oliver

Instagram is here to stay. Know how I know that?


That's how much Facebook paid for the smartphone app that lets users add artistic filters to their photos. You don't buy a company for that much money just to watch it fade away.

Personally, I'm fine with all of this. I really enjoy Instagram. I like reliving all of the fun things I've done and all of the incredible things I've seen. I like seeing where my friends have been. I love seeing incredible photos from National Geographic.

At this point, I really only have one problem with Instagram... and it just so happens to be a big one. Photo Map.

What is Instagram's Photo Map?

Years ago, I shared some safety concerns I had with an up-and-coming Silicon Valley startup called Color. Color has famously fizzled after a $41,000,000 initial venture capital investment, but, in a sense, their original idea lives on in Instagram's Photo Map.

The Photo Map feature in Instagram adds geolocation information to the photos you take within the app. Once you post the photo you can see it in the context of a world map whenever you'd like.

Travel to Belize for your honeymoon? Any photos you took there will show up on a map so you (and all of your friends) can see exactly where you took it. Go on a hike last weekend with a couple of friends? You (and all of your friends) can see exactly where on the trail you snapped the shot.

Why is Photo Map Potentially Dangerous?

Let me start by saying that I use Instagram and the Photo Map feature more than most. Let me also say that my concerns don't have so much to do with the technology, but instead the lack of information regarding safe and unsafe ways to use it.

So That's Where You Live

If the Photo Map feature is turned on, and you choose to allow geotagging of every photo you take, where do you suppose the largest cluster of photos you take will appear? For most people, the largest cluster of photos will appear at home.

Here's an example. This Instagram user is engaged to one of the biggest up-and-coming musicians in the world. She's joined her fiancée on tour, and she's taking incredible photos across the globe. She has more than 48,000 followers, but because her account is public, anyone can see the photos she's posting. And because she has the Photo Map feature enabled, we can see exactly where all of her photos are being taken.

Each of the six photos above are screengrabs of her Instagram Photo Map. In the first clip, the map is zoomed all the way out. As we progress through the clips, the clusters of photos begin to break apart and show more geographic detail. In boxes #1 and #2, we can tell that the user has taken photos all across the United States, but it's clear that the large majority are coming from the Pacific Northwest. As we zoom in with boxes #3 and #4, it becomes clear that she's taken the majority of her photos in close proximity to Seattle, Washington. And by the time we see the Photo Map in boxes #5 and #6, we can really start to get an idea of a specific neighborhood.

I've chosen not to show any closer detail in this post, but you need to understand that the Instagram Photo Map provides even more exact geotagging. By the time the Photo Map is fully zoomed in we have a very good idea of the exact apartment building the user lives in.

If You're There...

If you've added your Instagram photos to the Photo Map, then not only can we figure out where you live, we can also see when you're not home. When the user I've shown above tags a photo in Australia or Atlanta, I know she's not in Seattle. And if she's not in Seattle... who's watching her apartment?

How Can I Make Instagram Safer?

As far as I can tell, you have three different ways to make Instagram safer. You'll notice, however, that each recommendation operates under the assumption that your close family and friends (i.e., the people who already know where you live) would never use your location information to break into your home. Please recognize that there are inherent risks anytime you check-in or using geotagging with Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or Instagram.

Deactivate Photo Map Completely

Short of deleting your Instagram account, the best way to prevent people from knowing where you are is to deactivate the Photo Map feature on Instagram completely. Unfortunately, there isn't an easy way to remove the location information from all of your previous photos once you've added it. You can, however, remove the location information from each photo one shot at a time.

It's worth noting here that the Instagram Photo Map feature is not turned on be default. If you've never expressly given the app permission to add location data to a shared photo, your Photo Map should be empty.

Pick and Choose the Photos You Add to Photo Map

As I mentioned earlier, I personally really like the Photo Map feature. I love being able to see where all of my photos were taken, so I use it with a large percentage of the photos I upload. The major exception is photos taken anywhere near my home. Anytime I take a photo of my dog laying on the couch or of a steak I cooked up on the grill I deselect the "Add to your Photo Map" button.

This option is presented just before you upload your photo to Instagram. To the right you see a screenshot of the feature turned off and on. When turned on you are given the option to name the location the photo was taken at.

Lock Down Your Instagram Profile

Your final option is to make your Instagram profile private. This feature can be accessed through the main Settings menu within the app. When a Instagram profile is private, only the friends that you allow to follow your account will see your photos, your Photo Map, and the location data for each of your uploads.

Once again, sharing location information about your home can still be risky if one of your friends inadvertently shares your Photo Map or loses their phone - or if they decide you're not really friends after all and they use your check-ins to burgle your home. In general, it's a good idea to just never add a photo taken at home to the Photo Map.


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