The "nondescript" vacation photo challenge

Why and how going on a trip can make you vulnerable

It was my late father’s dream to take his grandson to many places — and Colorado was high on the list. I was choking back tears when we landed in Colorado Springs last month. It felt like messages from dad were embedded in the landscape of the place.

Of course, the pathos of the moment was taken down a notch when salad dressing from a takeout box from Dallas spilled on me as I was deplaning, prompting my very helpful son to yell, “Mom, you have white stuff running down your legs!” to the delight of other passengers. But that’s life. It would be unbearable if it wasn’t ridiculous.

Some time later, I posted the following picture, and asked my readers to geolocate me:

What was fun about the process is that we’d taken a bunch of pictures and a guy nearby asked me what we were doing — and then he asked me why we don’t want to pose with a more clearly defined landmark in the background. When I explained that Google Lens would identify a clearly defined landmark in seconds, he was very impressed!

Now, if you’re new to this game, you may probably feel like the guy, to whom this picture appeared “nondescript.”

If you’re not new, you probably guessed that we were geolocated very quickly.

It took Jared all of six minutes, for example:

And here is a great breakdown of how my other posts on social media, my public Instagram included, would lead one to geolocate me:

What great attention to detail! I was hoping that someone not familiar with Boulder would be able to do this, and I was not disappointed!

Here is the post she was referring to & the hashtag in question;

You can just as easily figure out the place from the tagged location, which I wanted to highlight because of how great it is, but the hashtags made it even easier.

I don’t usually pose with my child when I do geolocation challenges, but here I thought it was important. Simply because this is how vacation photos work — we want to take them with the people we love!

It should always be a completely harmless activity, but as I’ve always said and will keep on saying — try not to post your vacation photos exactly in real time. And don’t assume that a seemingly “nondescript” photo can’t be geolocated. Our habits are such that we take a lot of photos on vacation. If you’re wearing the same outfit throughout the day, as most people do, an easily identifiable picture featuring the outfit can then be used to geolocate a not-so-easy one. My child was next to me to illustrate that point. Two sets of clothing = greater probability that you will be geolocated very quickly.

While I have demonstrated similar dilemmas before, this one requires more special attention simply due to the fact that when we’re on vacation, we feel that ordinary rules don’t apply. We don’t want them to apply. We’re taking a break!

Vacations leave us pretty vulnerable though. Both because we may be in an unfamiliar place — where someone can easily exploit our lack of familiarity — and because you never know who might be watching your feeds in order to take advantage of the fact that you’re not home. I have both an alarm system and a distinct lack of super-duper important stuff lying around my place when I’m not there, but a lot of people don’t think like I do, and who could blame them. This type of planning looks like it’s verging on paranoia.

Still, if you’ve ever held a sensitive job or, God forbid, dealt with a stalker or another form of crime, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You may have probably considered how and when to post photos. You may have left important documents or objects with friends when you traveled. Or you may have just considered who on earth is watching your public feeds.

This also goes for friends with nosy and/or problematic neighbors. A friend of mine recently went out of town for a few weeks. She had a house sitter during most of that time, but she also made sure to install an extra security camera, because her neighbors’ kids had a habit of sneaking into her pool. Sure enough, a few hours after she’d publicly posted a vacation photo, the security camera got them. It was a harmless, silly situation (my friend had been certain that people were sneaking into her pool, but a weirdly positioned old camera made it impossible to verify at first, and she felt like she was going crazy) but it made both of us think about the implications of telegraphing your absence and/or your presence.

So, next time you’re going out of town — re-read this post. Or send it to a friend or relative who could use it!

If you learned something new today, please consider a $5 subscription! If you’re allergic to subscriptions, my Venmo is Natalia-Antonova-1 and my CashApp is $NataliaAntonova. If you’re planning a trip and would like some extra guidance on managing your digital footprint during that time, hit me up on nvantonova@gmail.com (this address is also tied to my PayPal) ❤️❤️❤️