How Your Instagram Story Lets The Cops Follow You Around A City

By cross-referencing just one hour of footage from public webcams with stories taken in Times Square, BuzzFeed News confirmed the full identities of a half dozen people.

When you create and post an Instagram story in a public space you may be inadvertently giving away far more information about yourself and your movements than you realize.

As ubiquitous surveillance intersects with social media data trails, it has become incredibly easy to identify individuals in public places. By cross-referencing just one hour of video footage from public webcams with Instagram stories taken and shared in Times Square, BuzzFeed News was able to confirm the real names and identities of a half dozen people.

Modern cities are filled with thousands of cameras, many of them constantly collecting images of people in public spaces. And although some cities have moved to limit the use of facial recognition in policing, almost no restrictions exist on the far more common use of public-facing surveillance cameras, which are capable of capturing individuals and their movements across cities for law enforcement, corporations, and even members of the general public. In the US, there are no laws governing how long companies or individuals can keep these images or what they can be used for. (BuzzFeed News did not use any facial recognition software to identify people in Times Square.)

While there have long been CCTV cameras trained on the public, there has been an explosion in recent years. Unofficial estimates put the number of cameras in London, reportedly the most surveilled city outside of China, at one camera for every 14 people.

Meanwhile, the rise of social media has meant billions of people are now posting photos of themselves online, often publicly. Every day, more than 500 million people around the world share photos or videos on Instagram alone.

This means that publicly available webcams in high-traffic public places make it easy to locate Instagram users in the footage, by tracking stories posted from the same location using geotags and hashtags.

Although this is possible with a variety of apps with location tagging, Instagram is an especially effective means of identification given that it is public by default — it takes multiple steps within the app’s settings to set your account to private — and also has a massive user base of more than 1 billion accounts. The fact that Instagram features rich content of images and videos, as opposed to a text-only tweet or a Facebook update, for example, also make a huge difference because viewers can work out the precise location a user is standing in when they captured a snippet of footage. In many of the cases, we found personal details including occupations, addresses, phone numbers, and contacts just by searching social media. It took just minutes searching on Google to find even more detailed information about individuals. To protect the users' privacy, we are not revealing their identities here, and we have deleted the data we collected about them.

This level of detail underscores just how much information people are unwittingly revealing in videos, both the ones posted on social media and those taken of people in public spaces. This kind of information can be and is used by groups ranging from intelligence services to advertisers to build profiles of individuals.

For example, authorities could use publicly available webcams filming an area where a protest is taking place. By looking at Instagram stories that protesters post in real time at any particular location, authorities would be able to identify them and track their movements throughout a city using other cameras, including before they arrived at the protest, and what they did afterwards. Other people featured in the background of the Instagram posts could also be identified — by facial recognition technology, for example — and followed in this way.

In our experiment identifying people using their Instagram stories, we started with camera footage from tourism and surveillance company EarthCam, which streams live footage online for free and also makes previous days’ footage available for anyone to access. EarthCam is among a handful of companies that place cameras in highly trafficked areas — from tourist hotspots like Times Square and Andy Warhol’s grave to university campuses. Then we synced and compared the streaming footage EarthCam posts online to Instagram stories geotagged to Times Square.

To show you how we did it, BuzzFeed News’ Hayes Brown acted as a guinea pig for demonstration purposes. We sent Hayes to Times Square, where he wandered around and posted Instagram stories of street performers, chain restaurants, and himself. Hayes recorded tourists sitting on stairs sweltering in the August heat, a street performer dressed in a full-body Pikachu costume, and New York’s “beloved” Naked Cowboy strumming a guitar as a tourist bus drives past.

Hayes Brown / BuzzFeed News

Hayes' Instagram stories in Times Square

Meanwhile, we recorded about an hour of footage from EarthCam’s cameras, which are mounted around Times Square.


A clip of selected footage from the Times Square EarthCam.

Then we searched for Instagram stories posted at the same time and recorded those too. We could figure out exactly where Hayes was standing in Times Square based on who and what appeared in his Instagram stories. While this experiment was staged, the process for identifying him and tracking his movements was identical to the way we identified the half dozen private individuals.

Once we identified Hayes in the video footage, we could map exactly where he moved throughout Times Square and observe what he did, even if he didn’t share it online. For example, Hayes took a selfie with the Naked Cowboy, but he never posted it. But we know he took the photo from monitoring EarthCam’s footage.

If we had continued the experiment outside Times Square, it would have been just as easy to chart his course through other parts of the city too, so long as we had access to other publicly available footage, including New York’s traffic cameras.

Many of the Instagram stories we looked at before replicating the exercise with Hayes were shots of people milling around Times Square, including tourists, performers, and people who worked at businesses in the area. While it's a user’s choice to post an Instagram story, other people can also be caught in the background and subsequently be tracked.

“As a matter of principle, we think people should decide for themselves if they want to share publicly or privately. Much like any photo posted publicly to the internet, there’s a risk others will use it without permission, in unintended ways. It’s a leap to suggest Instagram should privatize the behaviors of people who choose to share their content with the world,” Instagram told BuzzFeed News.

Lisa Kelly, executive director at EarthCam, said, “Everybody is walking around with a camera phone these days,” and noted that some EarthCam cameras had signs that read “Smile! You’re on EarthCam” near them.

“Is it showing people who are maybe unaware? Possibly. But we’re also in a time where everyone has cameras and anybody can end up anywhere,” she added.

Zachary Ares / BuzzFeed News; EarthCam

Tracking Hayes' movements through Times Square based on his Instagram activity.

Our analysis makes plain a central conflict when it comes to privacy in big urban spaces.

From cellphones to webcams, there are now so many sources of footage of individuals that it is incredibly easy for police, private companies, or just about anyone to trace the movements of individuals over long periods of time. And the problem is only compounded by the growth of video analytics tools, like facial and behavioral recognition, that can be used with any video footage of a high enough quality.

Privacy activists say this fact of urban life poses an existential threat to individual privacy and freedom — rights they say we are giving up without even realizing we’re doing it.

“When you have multiple sources of data joined together, you have the ability to track specific people around the city,” said Os Keyes, a privacy researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. “This is something that a journalist can do, and that places like Palantir and the FBI can do in a heartbeat.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and lawmakers in San Francisco and Oakland are among those sounding the alarm about video surveillance in the US, particularly when it has to do with facial recognition technology.

The alarm bells come as law enforcement authorities and private companies gain the ability to track individuals as they move around cities, using increasingly sophisticated forms of video analysis.

EarthCam said it uses the highest resolution possible for its cameras to provide the best basis for its analytics, which have become a source of revenue for the company.

“Because our cameras are so high resolution, there’s potential we’ve looked at with large companies based on different types of software. Standards would be pedestrian counts, vehicle traffic, and safety,” EarthCam’s Kelly said.

Companies have used EarthCam’s feeds to pull information out about these metrics, she said.

“Some of the footage we keep forever. We have a lot of storage,” Kelly said. “We have — I don’t know — trillions of images at this point, and a huge library to pull from when we’re trying to make our tech smarter.”

The company stores some video indefinitely, she added — and some footage has been held by the company since 1996, when EarthCam was founded.

Concerns about the proliferation of security cameras has far predated the current anxiety about facial recognition and the movement to ban it. But facial recognition relies on high-resolution cameras, and the footage contributes to companies’ and government bodies’ growing ability to collect and quickly analyze vast amounts of data. Individuals also contribute to this pool of footage using their cellphone cameras.

Experts interviewed by BuzzFeed News said EarthCam and other similar camera feeds feature a high enough resolution for third parties to apply facial recognition software.

EarthCam said its cameras help people access places they could never otherwise visit. People with disabilities, or without the money to travel, for example, can check out far-flung tourist destinations from their laptops and phones. But the company can do little about outside parties applying human or automated analyses to its camera feeds for less wholesome ends.

“It’s there for everybody to view, but not there for anybody to use in a nefarious way,” Kelly said. The company had approached people whom it found were misusing the feeds — EarthCam didn’t say precisely how — and asked them to stop. But in general, there’s no way to know how the feeds are being used, particularly those that are put up for free online.

“It could start as a wholesome thing — as a way to see the world, an accessibility thing,” said Jevan Hutson, a law student at the University of Washington and a privacy researcher and activist. “But when they share the data or just make it available to other people, the data can be abused to achieve a variety of things folks didn’t consent to and weren’t aware of — and based on EarthCam’s own policies, they don’t prevent it.”

Even outside urban or highly trafficked environments, Hutson said, new ventures like Amazon’s Ring, which puts security cameras on people’s doors to form a kind of digital neighborhood watch, endanger people’s privacy.

The presence of video cameras and the analytics that come with them present a particular dilemma in a country like the US, where filming in public places is a right protected by the First Amendment. The same laws that protect a car passenger’s right to film an abusive police officer during a traffic stop or a journalist’s right to film a demonstration also safeguard private companies’ ability to film in public spaces.

But privacy activists say that when collecting and analyzing video footage is so easy, it’s tantamount to a search. It flips the principle that citizens must consent to a search, allowing them to be searched without a suspicion they’ve done anything wrong, they say.

Many privacy activists see high-resolution cameras and the video analytics that come along with them as an inversion of our rights to be protected from warrantless search. Aside from becoming a shut-in, there’s no real way to avoid being filmed by a camera in public spaces — which means there’s no way to meaningfully consent to being filmed in the first place.

Privacy activists say new video analytics technologies — from algorithms that decipher the size of crowds and the clothing people wear to gait and facial recognition — add a new layer of privacy infringement that most people simply don’t realize is happening.

Police in New York typically need to request permission to obtain surveillance camera footage from private businesses. But for publicly available footage, which includes people who have set up streaming camera feeds from public places and videos posted on Instagram, police can access and analyze the footage like anyone else.

EarthCam said it had received and complied with police requests for its footage in cases where police had provided appropriate documentation.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, noted a parallel to a landmark Supreme Court decision last year called Carpenter v. United States, which found government authorities need a warrant to track people’s historical locations using cell tower data.

“If it’s unconstitutional to track me using my phone, it should be just as unconstitutional to track me using my face,” Cahn said. “At the heart of this question is how much these tools give the government the ability to monitor the behavior of individuals when they don’t have any evidence they have engaged in a crime.” ●

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