In February, a Republican politician in the UK named Aaron Schock was criticized for spending thousands of dollars in taxpayer and campaign funds on lots of treats for himself. Cigars, cars, the lavish redecoration of his congressional office, and a private jet to a Katy Perry concert were just a few of the personal pleasures reportedly paid for with the wrong kind of cash.
Soon after all this was revealed, Schock claimed that he takes compliance with congressional funding rules very seriously, and said that he had begun a review of his office's procedures "concerning this issue and others to determine whether they can be improved." However, by this point—as with the apologies that followed the UK expenses scandal—the damage was already done. Not long after the claims were published, Schock announced his resignation from Congress.
What distinguishes the former Congressman's financial scandal from its UK equivalent is how the revelations came to be discovered. While Westminster's politicians were caught out because of the leaking of their expenses claims, Schock was tripped up after doing something millions of us do every day: posting photos to his Instagram.
Associated Press journalists found out about the misuse of funds simply by cross-referencing images and location data from the photomap on Schock's Instagram account with flight data and his expenses (a cautionary tale for anyone who works in advertising, media, or any other profession where the phrase "just expense it" is considered legit). It sounds like such an easy mistake to avoid, like not uploading a photo of a stranger pouring a magnum of champagne into your mouth after calling in sick. But the reality behind the Schock story is slightly more complex.
Whenever you post a photo, Instagram assigns it to the location where you've uploaded it, effectively turning the app's photomap into a sort of static tracking device. Even if your phone's privacy settings are set to not record the location when you take a photo (clever you), the upload location is still recorded when you post it. So that innocuous-looking inverted grey teardrop on your profile page is quietly creating a map of the places you work, eat, and sleep.
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Once I had this figured out, I started exploring. Instagram knew where I lived (weird); it knew where my boyfriend had been (useful); and it knew where my best friends lived (cute). It was addictive. I wondered if anyone had done the same to me.
Armed with this new information, I figured I could work out where basically any Instagram user lived by either finding photos they had taken of their kitchens or bedrooms, before checking the location, or by figuring out where they upload the majority of their posts from—which, following basic logic, is most likely to be their home. I started small, with entry-level celebrities, It girls and former T4 presenters. The less famous the celebrity, the more enthusiastic they were to share their locations, tagging themselves in members clubs from Soho to Shoreditch and at every awards ceremony going.
After a few minutes, I had moved on to musicians and actors, breezing through non-existent security to find their homes and hangout spots. Most of the people I looked up were unintentionally leaving a breadcrumb trail of their movements for literally anyone to see, because it's rare that you find a celebrity who sets their Instagram page to private.
Obviously some tags created a false trail, leading only to PR and social media teams in central London offices. However, after a quick Google search, it was easy to cross-reference information and identify which photographs had been uploaded by celebrities, and which had been uploaded by people paid to post photographs on phone apps.
Some A-listers had disabled the photomap function altogether, meaning I couldn't see anything. Others had clearly changed the settings but neglected to delete the location information already stored on their account. Even among the most PR savvy celebrities there were slip-ups: Kris Jenner's photomap was fairly unpopulated, but did reveal five pictures posted from a house on a road in Calabasas, California, which a quick Google search revealed to be the Kardashian-Jenner family home. Victoria Beckham's Instagram contained a number of pictures posted in Hackney, with five linked to a property in Stoke Newington (perhaps the home of an overworked social media manager?).
The photomaps on other celebrity Instagrams—from those of Pixie Lott to Lily Allen, porn star Mia Khalifa to celebrity offspring Lily-Rose Depp and Raff Law—made it very obvious as to where the users' homes are, with tens of personal photographs uploaded from the same locations.
Since photos are tethered to a location, it's also incredibly easy to discover exactly what happens where. Tinie Tempah's gym selfies, for example, showed where he works out (very close to the VICE office; might stalk him IRL), while selfies posted in bedrooms and bathrooms indicated exactly where the users lived and, by extension, provided information about when their house was unoccupied. Which obviously isn't ideal.
I began to contact PRs, most of whom thanked me for the heads-up, but refused to comment further. None I spoke to were apparently aware that this level of personal information was being published through their clients' Instagram accounts.
DawBell, Tinie Tempah's PR team, stated that while they did not want to make an official comment, Tinie "didn't know" that his location information was so easily identifiable. They agreed that this level of exposure was "very scary" and said they wanted to "protect [Tinie's] safety." Suki Waterhouse's PR team denied that the tagged images were linked to her whereabouts. The PRs for Sam Smith and Bonnie Wright thanked me but refused to comment further. Pixie Lott, Kris Jenner, Lily Allen, and Jourdan Dunn's PR teams did not respond to emails.
Despite the obvious lack of public knowledge surrounding the issue, Instagram clearly states that locations will be added to photomaps in their online help center. Under the header "Can people see where I live from my photo map?" the company responds: "We ask that you're mindful of which photos you add to your photomap since the precise locations of your photos and videos are visible to anyone who can see your posts."
Why has such a transparent issue so far gone unnoticed by the general public? Probably because, like me, it's unlikely the majority of Instagram users will have bothered scrolling through the online help center. So let this act as a public service announcement: if you don't want people knowing where you shower, change the privacy settings on your phone so Instagram can't access your location, and remove the geotags from all your old photos.
Or, if you like the thought of a stranger joining your gym just to watch you sweat, feel free to carry on as you are.
Follow Bryony Stone on Twitter.