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What can cat photos teach us about the dangers of online privacy?

In a world of spying, surveillance leaks and advanced analytics tracking our every move, a new website is tracking the locations of a million cats.

Owen Mundy, a professor at Florida State University has launched a unique site that tracks the location of cats around the world based on metadata embedded in photos that people inadvertently posted to social media sites.

Using images of cats uploaded to photosharing services, including Flickr, Twitpic and Instagram, Mr. Mundy extracted latitude and longitude coordinates contained in the metadata attach to each image. His site displays random images from a sample of one million of what Mr. Mundy estimates are at least 15 million pictures tagged with the word “cat” online.

The images are displayed on a map using satellite imagery, with nearby cat photos also visible. Specific street addresses are not displayed, but it wouldn’t be difficult to pinpoint where the felines reside.

According to professor Mundy’s blog:

“I Know Where Your Cat Lives” is a data experiment that visualises a sample of 1 million public pics of cats on a world map, locating them by the latitude and longitude coordinates embedded in their metadata. 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. 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. This website doesn’t visualise all of the cats on the net, only the ones that allow you to track where their owners have been."

As Derek Willis points out in a post on The New York Times website, “The lesson for people who share pictures online, whether it’s kittens or your children, is this: If you include more metadata than you have to with your photos, don’t be surprised if it’s used online in ways you didn’t expect and can’t fully control.”

It’s a frightening world out there when a cat’s privacy can be invaded so easily (presumably without their knowledge or prior consent).

Next thing you know some nefarious cyber-criminal will be hacking into our pet’s gmail accounts, stealing their passwords and racking up fraudulent charges at PetCo.

So warn your pets to use strong passwords and encrypt all financial transactions or they may discover that someone in Nigeria has purchased 9,000 lbs. of catnip and 84 cases of Beggin’ Strips using their debit cards.

Read more: Hide My Ass! encourages parents to have "the talk"