Next time you pose for an Instagram photo in public, don’t forget to also smile for the numerous surveillance cameras in the area. “The Follower” may be watching.
Belgium-based artist Dries Depoorter‘s latest project, “The Follower,” reveals just how often people are being surveilled in public. And all he needed to track down his social media targets in real life was a photo that they posted on Meta-owned Instagram.
“One day I saw a person taking photos for like 20 minutes and I was trying to find the photo on Instagram a day later without success,” Depoorter told Mashable. “Then I started building the [artificial intelligence] software.”
Thanks to facial recognition software created by Depoorter and footage from open cameras livestreaming public spaces from around the world, the artist was able to find video of Instagrammers preparing to take a photo they later posted on the social media platform. It’s an interesting look at what goes on behind the scenes of a curated Instagram picture. More importantly, it shows just how much information can be pulled from a photo posted online.
The open cameras used by Depoorter for this project are available to anyone, anywhere to watch at any time on websites like EarthCam. These cameras film people in public spaces around the world, seemingly without the knowledge of those being streamed.
The project’s results are an eye-opening reminder that there’s a good chance you are being recorded when you’re out in a public space. It also puts a spotlight on how much information we unknowingly give away about our lives when we participate in social media.
In one Instagram photo, for example, a woman in a long jacket holds her white handbag and looks behind her as she poses in front of The Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland. Depoorter was able to find video of the woman in the photo as she posed for the picture via an open surveillance camera perched above the street and pointed at the street corner where The Temple Bar sits.
In another photo, two young men pose for an Instagram photo in New York City’s Times Square. Depoorter was able to find video of them walking down the street towards their photographer for the shot via a camera streaming from above Times Square.
Seeing these types of Instagram users readying their perfect shot is what inspired Depoorter to create “The Follower” in the first place. Although he admits that tracking these Instagrammers down wasn’t as simple as sitting back and letting his AI software search open-camera footage for a match.
“Finding the people in the videos. That was super difficult,” Depoorter said.
While “The Follower” is a new piece from Depoorter, the artist has been making art projects using open cameras for years. For example, in 2018, he launched his “Jaywalking Frames” project. Using “unprotected surveillance cameras and custom software,” Depoorter took snapshots of people jaywalking in cities all over the world.
Another project that launched last year, “The Flemish Scrollers,” used AI software to track a livestream of Belgian politicians in Flemish parliament meetings. The AI would scan for politicians using their smartphone on the live video feed, automatically tag them via Twitter, and call them out for being distracted.
As unsettling as Depoorter’s AI-powered art projects monitoring Instagrammers or politicians on livestreams may be, they have nothing on the type of surveillance governments or big tech corporations can use to track him, you, or anyone else.
Notorious facial recognition company, Clearview AI, for example, has made headlines in recent years for its creepy ability to find and track individuals based on its database of tens of billions of public images scraped from the web. The company has sold its service to law enforcement around the country.
“In all my work, I try to show the dangers of new technology,” Depoorter said. “I’m only one person with limited access to data and cameras. Just imagine what a government or private organizations can do.”
“The Follower” provides an important reminder for us all in this digital age: Assume you are being watched at all times.