Jan. 2, 2013 at 9:12 PM ET
"If you don't want it to be shared or seen by the entire world," Abe Stanway explains, "you shouldn't share it with anyone at all." The 22-year-old engineer is part of a small team that built a site which shows anyone exactly where an Instagram photo was taken.
The site, called the Beat, takes advantage of the Instagram and Google Street View application programming interfaces (APIs) in order to create a strange mashup of the two services. All a user has to do is search for a keyword and Beat will spit out results in the form of photos with geotags — embedded geographic data — and a look at the Google Street View location corresponding to that information.
Through some simple keyword searches, I found that it's possible to easily discover where a girl with a large pile of yet-to-be-opened gift boxes from Tiffany's resides, where a family is spending its summer vacation (and which hotel's bar the father favors), where a man with an impressive gun collection lives, and so on. Someone with a plan — malicious or otherwise — and some time on his or her hands can easily compile a wealth of data on strangers. (Is it any surprise that at least one tech reporter has wondered if Beat is a "creepy" use of technology?)
Of course, what Beat does isn't an absolute novelty. In the past we've seen apps and services — such as one named "Creepy" or another dubbed "Please Rob Me" — which easily gather geographic data from services like Flickr, Twitpic, Instagram, Foursquare and so on. Thanks to these apps and services, and smartphones which have the ability to add geotags to photos and social media posts, there's plenty of information lingering out there.
"People want to share, people sometimes want to share publicly," Mor Naaman, an assistant professor at Rutgers University whose research group built Beat, told NBC News. "But they still want to retain privacy." He sounds certain that both desires can coexist.
Naaman's research group consists of Abe Stanway (who also spoke with NBC News), Ian Jennings and Jerry Reptak — current and former Rutgers University undergrads. For them, Beat is just a small part of what Naaman describes as a "much larger project," one which focuses on collecting, organizing and showing relevant information online.
"Social media forgets a lot about what's happening in real life, what's happening out there, what people do, what they care about," Naaman explains. Stanway says if aliens were looking at Earth or a city on Earth, "What would they want to know? [...] What would be their passport to figure it out?"
By giving photos context — location — Beat can show you the ... well, beat, or rhythm, of any place or topic.
As Beat flashes images of valuables and their locations across my screen, Naaman's words seem too gentle for the potential danger they convey.
"I think people should continue to share," he says. "I think it's interesting and critical [...] but I would also like them to think about the consequences."
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