"If I was stalking you in Virginia Beach, here's what I'd do"

The story of a picture, a geolocation game, and a tiny detail with big implications

One of my missions in life is to show you how much information a single picture posted on social media can give away. Here is my latest experiment:

As usual when it comes to easier challenges (note the abundance of signs in the background that I didn’t obscure) our exact location in Virginia Beach was pinned down very quickly. The first correct public response came less than 10 minutes after the picture was posted:

A DM with the right answer was sent to me about a minute before the public tweet which confirmed the location as well.

Some people expressed frustration at how easy this was and others were amazed and horrified and asked Ken Campbell, who’s an excellent player of these games, if he was simply familiar with the area. The thing is, as I keep saying, geolocation is not a mysterious Dark Art.

Ken’s method for geolocating us was one of the most straightforward out of the various methods presented (don’t hesitate to look at all of the replies to see a good cross-section):

However, there is always more to these photos than just the location. To get a general idea of how much more, check out this guy’s tweets:

He’s absolutely correct. In fact, by cross-referencing information, he was able to find out exactly who I was pictured with and where she works. This might shock some of you who are new to the subject, but for those of us who are not new, it’s just a day ending in y.

All one really had to do was cross-reference some of my public social media, spot the same woman, who’s a good friend, and go from there. I deliberately tagged her a lot during our trip (yes, she consented to the challenge) to drive a point home — it’s very easy to connect the dots using publicly available sources.

It gets better, though. Pablo was one of the first to notice the sanitizer on the table:

Why is this important? Well, obviously, it helps give a rough idea of the chronolocation (as in, this picture was definitely not taken in the Before Times), but it gets much better than that. This is also the kind of psychological detail that can really help a stalker.

A lot of people don’t respond to my challenges publicly for fear of being misunderstood and piled on by my followers. One of them is a friend who is ex-military and had this to say over the phone, as we discussed the challenge:

“Sanitizer on the table, plus mask on the table. You’re going out, yet are conscious of the virus. If I was stalking you in Virginia Beach that evening, here’s what I’d do: I would look for places that are not too crowded. Somewhere laid back, but nice enough for two attractive professional women to hang out later that day. Virginia Beach is small enough. I could draw up a list.”

Slightly terrifying, right? Don’t worry, my friend is not a crazed stalker, he just knows how to strategize — but sometimes, it helps to get into the mindset of a stalker to understand how they stalk. Stalking happens to a lot of people, and one of my goals is to let you know how your data can be used by these people, and the leaps, sometimes correct leaps, that they will take to predict your next move.

Among the other details that people picked up on were our sunglasses, and the reflections in them, which included food and our other friend, who was taking the picture.

I don’t stress this often enough, so I will stress it now: REFLECTIONS IN YOUR SUNGLASSES ARE JUDAS, THEY WILL BETRAY YOU. I sometimes darken and blur mine, if I don’t want people to figure out where I’m staying (there are easy and affordable apps out there if you are considering getting one for your phone!). This might sound paranoid, but since I have dealt with stalkers before, it’s just an extra step I take.

If you want to understand just what kind of a role a reflection can play, check out this story from Japan.

I also really appreciated responses like this:

Correct! You don’t always need to go for complex tools and geolocation to understand something important about a picture.

And this:

Yes! I love Dark Sky precisely because of the kind of information it can provide.

Obviously, there is even more going on in the picture, but I believe you get the gist.

I specifically went for a simple picture, as opposed to something artfully posed, because when it comes to pictures like this, they can feel so innocuous. We don’t think they’re saying a lot about us, when, in fact, they are.

Are you freaking out right now? Don’t. Freaking out saps your energy, which is the last thing you need in the year of our lord 2020. Instead, rejoice in the fact that there are ways to make informed choices about what you post online. Send this post to friends and relatives who might not believe you.

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