When a cigar is not just a cigar

OR — why better spatial awareness is important for online safety

Last week, I posted this picture and said that whoever found me first would get a prize:

The quickest correct response arrived in two minutes:

Now, Casey won & got the prize (which was just enough $ for a decent, if not expensive, cigar) but I obviously wondered if he’d recognized the place and hung out there often. After all, my geolocation challenges are always easier for DC metro area residents, assuming I am posting from there.

It turned out that he did recognize it, but took to Google to make sure. This will become important later, so bear with me.

This response noted that I’d been tweeting about going across the river (I live in D.C.) earlier in the week:

This response simply took note of the cigar ashtrays to quickly figure out a cigar bar in my general area:

This response matched some of the decor:

There were other great responses, but my general point had been proven. A little cross-referencing + a general understanding of my location = you knew exactly where I’d been hanging out.

My friend, who’d taken me to 219, didn’t believe that we could be so easily geolocated. Even the route that Casey took — spotting a familiar place and then googling it to make sure — didn’t exactly occur to him at first.

You might think that my friend was being naive, but he was not. In my experience, our brains are in fact trained to perceive certain details of the world around us as thoroughly generic. The process of recognizing and/or carefully matching interiors doesn’t immediately occur to us. It’s a skill that must be learned.

The light was dim, you couldn’t exactly enhance the QR codes in the picture (not without some serious back-up, anyway), the bar was partially obscured, the chairs looked like any old chairs — so it just didn’t seem plausible that this picture could be quickly geolocated.

We must remember that the way we “read” a picture vs. the way we “read” our immediate surroundings is fundamentally different too. Unless we’ve had experience with geolocation, we don’t just assume that certain elements are going to stand out when we post a picture.

This is why learning about online safety is never just a process by which you memorize how to perform certain actions, update your privacy settings, randomize your passwords and so on — it also has to be intuitive. We have to develop better spatial awareness, for example, and a better grasp on how our digital footprint can sprawl, such as, for example, be aware of the tweets I’d mentioned earlier, where I was giving away clues as to my location already:

Obviously, I do this to engage my followers in the game — but it’s also a good example of how tweets never just disappear after they’re sent out, even during a week dominated by news, and how anyone can scroll back and begin putting together the puzzle pieces in order to find your location.

I’m going to be trying different games in the future, which are going to take us out of the D.C. area entirely, but for now, I’ve liked to focus on this general locale just to show everyone what happens when you put enough information out there.

And now you guys know where I go when I’m aching for a cigar these days. Please don’t try to waylay me there if possible 😂🤦🏼‍♀️

If you need help with managing your digital footprint, you can reach me at nvantonova[at]gmail{dot}com. If you learned something new today, please consider a paid subscription. Just $5 a month makes all of the difference for me!