On August 8 I launched dickpiclocator.com, a service that invites you to upload an unsolicited dick pic and find out the exact location where the picture was taken. As I start writing this, 31 hours later, 932 images have been uploaded — an average of 30 pics per hour. Although there obviously are various prerequisites for this to even work, the broader response has been overwhelmingly positive. My underlying reason for this whole endeavour however has been to create an artefact that can illustrate the complexity of ethically sound web-based services and increase general awareness of what is contained in our digital footprints.
The problem of dick pics
I have personally been made acutely aware of the dick pic phenomenon via the Instagram account assholesonline, run by Linnéa Claeson, which regularly showcases the very worst of male predatory behavior online. Her amazing work in dealing with threats and violations online has awarded her the human rights prize of the Swedish United Nations Association. The same account has empowered more women to speak up and the huge scale of this problem is nigh impossible to ignore when you try to understand the types of harassment many women endure in the digital age.
The DickPicLocator website
The DickPicLocator was an idea that unexpectedly popped into my head when I was trying to go back to sleep after waking up too early on Sunday morning. I would imagine it’s my brain’s mashup of assholesonline and an episode of the wonderful podcast Note to Self where Manoush Zomorodi explores all the data about a person that can be found in a simple selfie.
Here is a description from the show notes of the episode named Revealing Selfies. Not Like That.:
A little Google image search, a little metadata, and we can find where you are. Maybe who you are. What color phone you’re using to take the shot, and how many SIM cards you have.
Reading photos is more than a digital parlor trick. It’s the future of commerce, marketing, policing, lending, and basically everything else.
Most importantly, it struck me how amazingly simple it would be to put together. There was very little programming for me to do as most of what I did has already been done and shared on the Internet. I realized it may get a lot of traffic so building it fast-loading would be important. I used the Skeleton CSS framework and made sure not to have the start page be too heavy. In fact, building this website took me less than six hours.
It is rather important to realize that there is absolutely nothing technically unique about the tool I have built. It is all built on open source, freely available code and scripts, with a built-in PHP library (a set of ready-made scripts — as in having cake-mix and just adding water) to extract what is called Exif-data from photos.
In fact, finding the location of any photo can be done on your smartphone, without the use of my website. If you think about it, many phones today allow you to plot your photos on a map. You can of course do this with anyone’s photos as long as you have access to them.
The primary thing really that has given the website traction is the name, and in part the written content on the website. I like to think that my own credibility has contributed to some extent as well, although I purposely made it quite difficult at first for visitors to ascertain who was behind it all.
Hence it is my understanding of communication, copywriting and human curiosity that enabled me to spark interest for the tool. The tech is not new, or complicated. It’s like reading a Word document if you just know where to look.
As such, everything has gone according to plan.
So why target dick pics?
I may have given the impression that the abundant sending of dick pics is something well-known. Let me rephrase: it is well-known within certain circles. I don’t think the extent of the problem is something that the general population tends to reflect on on a daily basis. It’s also a phenomenon that is over-represented in younger age groups (where more people have online communication as their primary mode of interaction); thus also age groups under-represented in politics and media. There is a tendency (an alarming one, as I see it) to regard these problems as inferior.
There’s also this mind-skewed vomit-inducing mantra of “boys will be boys” that has a perplexing foothold in the corridors of power.
I saw an opportunity to bring attention to the widespread existence of a world where dick pics are a thing of everyday life to the extent that they do not even come close to triggering surprise. Case in point: Hilary Stephenson questioned upon launch of my site whether anyone would even be interested in uploading pics, as she suspected they are so common now that they don’t even think of them. They’re just “life”.
Part of why dick pics upset me so much is that they are often sent from men hiding behind anonymous accounts. Whereas I see lots of reasons why it would be important to protect the possibility of being anonymous, this is not one of them. I saw the opportunity to empower recipients of dick pics and shift the power balance between the parties. Knowing location would be one factor in this power struggle. I have seen examples where, upon learning the identity of a harasser, women have sent along dick pics to parents to alert them of their child’s behavior. I was imagining this as a possible route and turn of events.
But of course, how each individual power struggle might play out after my service is used, with a confirmed location in hand and a sourced address at that location, I of course have no idea.
And here is where things begin to get complicated.
A string of dilemmas
Early feedback on the website focused on trust and what would happen with the data. These are entirely valid and relevant questions. I decided for ethical reasons I would not save photos and I would not track users in any way. I have not added Google Analytics to the site. All these would require more legalese text and user consent forms. Photos are in fact deleted within a second of being uploaded. Thankfully I’m not paying to host thousands of dick pics.
At the same time I wanted to save some data. In my head it would be interesting to see what areas of the world I would get the most coordinates from. So I thought I’d save just coordinates and timestamps, never with the intent to publish coordinates but with the intent to later show what countries upload the most pictures.
Update: Since 20:35 CEST on August 16 I am also logging visits to the site using the open source platform Piwik. With the worldwide media coverage this site is getting I decided to to take this step as I was receving a lot of questions about number of visitors. Note that no data is shared with a third party (so nothing like Google Analytics); this tool is installed on my web host and respects if you have DoNotTrack enabled in your browser.
Someone quickly pointed out that a list of coordinates, if it got out, would implicate someone as having sent a dick pic from those coordinates even if someone was uploading an entirely different genre of photo for analysis. Not believing there is such a thing as being immune to hackers I reiterated and now only municipality names (along with country), timestamp and camera model are saved for each pic. And the counter is incremented by one for each successful upload.
At the same time, me promising that I won’t save photos doesn’t mean a thing if you do not trust me to follow through on that promise. Hence I am somewhat, but not completely, surprised at the number of uploads happening right now as I am writing. There is just something about free services that draw people like moths to flames. Part of the problem I want to address and create awareness around.
Early today (Wednesday) I actually added a warning below the upload form, beginning with the words “Hang on. Are you about to upload a picture to a service without fully considering how the photo will be used? Sure it says the photo will be deleted, but can you trust this? […]”
Still, the upload rate has not decreased.
Repercussions and bad-will use
Although an underlying intent here may be interpreted as empowering recipients of dick pics there is no way I can influence what a person actually does with the data. I mentioned forwarding a dick pic to the sender’s family. On the whole a devastating experience for the harasser perhaps but one can argue back and forth about the ethics of that. In a sense I would want the decision about repercussions to lie with the recipient of the dick pick. Given this, I would however not take complete responsibility of the human effects of my tool. Hmm, much like most social media websites.
The other problem here is that the same tool can be used to upload pictures that others have for example posted on dating sites, and retrieve locations of “innocents”, as one critic justly posted on Twitter. He went on to say (my translation): “Then unfortunately I can not share the site. The result will unfortunately be that women will be more unsafe on the Internet, not less.”
What I would argue however is that my tool, as I have mentioned, is in no way unique. The ability to retrieve the location data for any tagged picture is something that can be done with many other online tools, or even with built-in functionality on most smartphones.
While you may read my tool as being what the label says, a Dick Pick Locator, my true intent goes beyond this:
- I want the tool to instigate the moral and ethical discussions that surround the sharing and retrieval of GPS coordinates from photos.
- I want people to be more aware of the risks they inadvertently may put themselves in by posting photos that contain the GPS coordinates of their homes and the artefacts within.
- I want people to look at this website, maybe try it out with an innocent picture, and gasp at the accuracy at which it can pinpoint their kitchen table.
The increased awareness of the omnipresent dick pic phenomenon, and the empowerment of sufferers of the same, is a bonus and an aid in spreading the message of how pictures can make you vulnerable in unexpected ways.
The thing is, without my website the retrieval of locations from photos will still continue. And many people will continue to be in the dark about this until they suffer the consequences. What my marketing gimmick does is reach more people with the message: “Hey! Your photos contain a lot of information about your life, perhaps more than you could previously imagine. Maybe you should treat your photos with more care.”
My solid belief is that it is better for people to become aware than to stay unaware. It is better they learn about these weaknesses in the fabric of the internet than to keep behaving in a manner that unknowingly puts them at risk of being targeted by others for ill purposes. Perhaps some people will even start taking down photos they did not intend for people to read the location from.
If the latter happens, if people start thinking more about the information shared in their online photos and post in a more considered manner, my message has been received.
While hardware and software developers may see it as beneficial that photos are tagged with coordinates without the consent or even complete awareness of the user, I believe that this is one of the core ethical dilemmas that need to be adressed: what responsibility do the developers have for building awareness rather than staying silent about the potential risks of the decisions they make?
I bring up the topic of commercialization because a woman expressed appreciation of the tool but also frustration over the fact that this type of problem can be “commercialized”. The idea of monetizing a tool like this had not really occurred to me but it does bring to light a problem I see in many startups, design agencies and various marketing professions. As this is close to the subject of my book in progress on the ethics of digitalization I’ll address it here as well.
Sometimes I can see professionals defining a persona such as a super-stressed working single mother as a target group for service X. Service X may be something that is ethically sound, perhaps helping people recycle. The premise then being: how can we help these people, who have very little time because their lives are really difficult, recycle more.
The issue with this is that the target group itself is a problem waiting to be solved, not a perpetual state to build for. And so if we define target groups with inherent problem sets and build solutions for these target groups, our business will suffer if the target groups we are building for do not persist. Hence it is within the organizations’ interest that these target groups stay the same. Organizations will organically work to maintain the suffering that the target groups are experiencing because otherwise their service will become obsolete.
An easy way to think of this is to consider how the the fossil fuel car industry has resisted renewable energy sources for so long due to their fear of becoming obsolete.
In the same way if someone were to monetize a service such as the DickPicLocator, it would make good business sense to promote the sending of dick pics.
Not gonna go there.
The anonymization of photos
Okay, but how useful is this tool really? I’m gonna go out on a limb now and propose that it is less useful than many will hope. The thing is, and I have tested this, that some messaging services actually strip data from pictures when they are sent over their networks. In such cases the coordinates are no longer available to the recipient. A decision made entirely by these messaging services and also not communicated to the users.
My best-case scenario is that potential dick pick perpetrators are the ones who try the tool, and upon seeing their own house on a map are deterred from following through.
Whether or not the messaging services actually do save the coordinates somewhere I can not answer, but I would suspect that they do. That data is valuable. It can be monetized. And remember how the podcast Note to Self so eloquently put it:
Reading photos is more than a digital parlor trick. It’s the future of commerce, marketing, policing, lending, and basically everything else.
I honestly doubt that many profit-driven businesses would even consider NOT saving GPS data about the users of their services. It’s just worth too much. Anonymized, you say? True anonymization is in fact much more difficult than most companies would care to admit.
Which brings us to a new level of moral dilemma. The service may know where the perpetrator who harasses you lives, but you have little or no control over the data that could help you gain justice. We give up our data and we also give up our control over the data. This is the cost of free.
In my case, people may have questioned the validity of my claims that I do not save data. They may suspect that I actually want to monetize on the data. Or people may not trust that I have the know-how to keep the data safe.
These suspicions are sound and relevant.
What worries me is that these suspicions do not seem to apply when regularly sharing data with private companies that happen to have a free app that you like to use. For a while everything may seem okay but all of a sudden a company hits financial challenges. Why wouldn’t they sell data about you to survive?
“But Dad, all my friends are using it, so why shouldn’t I?”
The answer is probably in the small print, but reading terms of service and privacy policies has become a joking matter these days. We all know that nobody reads them. Yet nobody seems equipped to address this issue. A little more than five years ago two Carnegie Mellon researchers suggested that reading all of the privacy policies an average Internet user encounters in a year would take 76 work days. Even if you wanted to read them you couldn’t.
All that is left is trust. The problem, I suppose, is that you have to invest in that trust by giving away all your personal data before you can even start to form your own educated opinion.
As consumers we always need to question and place demands on providers of the services we use when they act in conflict with out best interests. But if most consumers are in the dark about what’s going on then how could they possibly begin to express demands?
Mapping the world
Had I saved the data that passes through my service it would have been possible for me to create the dick pick version of I Know Where Your Cat Lives. This website has automatically downloaded thousands upon thousands of photos of cats from the Internet, read all the GPS data from these photos, and placed the cats on a map indicating the exact house where these felines spend their days. Ew, imagine the awful sight if DickPicLocator were to do this.
Examples such as this cat site can only begin to give you an understanding of how data about you, your locations and your belongings can be used to track and draw conclusions about your behavior in the present and in the future. The obvious conclusion is that whis would be used to sell you stuff, but perhaps, for now, it’s just used to watch you… like a fish in a tank.
In Sweden over the past weeks there has been a national trust crisis around the events of Sweden’s transport board outsourcing their data management and in the process placing military data at risk of being exposed to third parties without security clearance.
Although the media are notoriously weak in explaining the real challenges in protecting data and focusing more on the blame game, it is an example of how the world of data is moving at a pace where it is hard to keep up with the way in which data can be leaked. And perhaps some of it does not even have to “leak” anymore because valuable data is becoming so freely available.
As many citizens are keen to point fingers at the elected leaders and managers I can not help but think about how a majority of citizens are themselves assisting in the mapping of the whole country, both outside and inside buildings, by simply taking millions of pictures and posting them online — with the exact GPS coordinates freely available. This data can be sourced just like the cat pictures and used to map out buildings and vehicles in colorful detail.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the website I Know Where You Swedes Live already exists, albeit behind a password-protected login.
Where to go from here?
Well, Swedish national radio called me earlier today, I’m hoping for some interviews tomorrow, and the website certainly seems to be making some waves. I’m just hoping these waves will bring more awareness. I also hope that my good intentions in this are not misguided and that the good effects will outweigh the bad ones. I won’t pretend that there may not be some.
I’m trying to avoid being a bystander when we can start working to address the issues rather than pretending they do not exist or are not as serious because we ourselves lack experience in being on the receiving end. I would encourage you to talk to your peers about both the dick pic phenomenon and the personal data contained in images. Are you doing or sharing things in a way that can hurt yourself or others?
I believe that sparking these discussions will be my proudest and most tangible outcome when in the future I sit down to evaluate this crazy idea I had in my bed on Sunday morning just three days ago, and that now has taken on a life of its own.
Upon putting the finishing touches on this post the number of uploads to the website have surpassed 1,000. The counter says 1,057. As you will know, at least if you place your trust in me, I have no way of seeing what percentage of those are actually dick pics or people just experimenting with the service. I’m just hoping that “dp percentage” is low. Be careful out there.