In the fall of 2013, the word “selfie” was named Word of the Year by the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries. That shouldn’t be surprising. Since the emergence of Instagram, the trend of taking pictures of oneself smiling (or making a weird pouting face) and sharing them with friends and strangers alike has become increasingly common, and rapidly so. Oxford Dictionaries added the word “selfie” to their reference books that year, defining it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website;” Merriam-Webster added the term to its dictionaries about six months later.
And it’s no surprise that the trend has taken off. Sharing photos of yourself smiling can be a fun way to interact with friends near and far.
But if you’re famous, it can also be dangerous — especially if you’re not wearing sunglasses.
In September of 2019, a 20-year-old Japanese pop singer (whose name I’m omitting because almost all of the press reports similarly kept her anonymous) was attacked outside her apartment. Her attacker was a stalker named Hibiki Sato — a self-described fan whose obsession with the singer took a very violent turn. Physically, she was okay after a short recovery period; mentally and emotionally, it’s difficult to tell how she managed to move forward.
Unfortunately, many famous people have similar fears. Stalkers, particularly in a world where you’re expected to share the details of your lives publicly, are a constant threat. Many celebrities take common-sense precautions as a result, such as hiding their home address as much as possible. That means not taking selfies in or near your home, and if you do, never showing any notable landmarks that a would-be attacker can use to slueth out your location. By all accounts, the Sato’s victim had taken all of these precautions, though. He, however, had seen this not as a barrier, but as a challenge. All he needed to do was stare into his victim’s eyes.
According to Japan Today, “Sato said he’d been able to determine where his target lived by looking at selfies she’d posted on social media, specifically by looking at the reflection in her eyes of the surrounding scenery in outdoor shot.” While those images were tiny and often not quite in focus, Sato was undeterred. He took whatever limited information he could glean from her eyes and cross-referenced it with images from Google Street View. At some point, the singer’s eyes reflected an image of a railway stop and Sato was able to find that location; from there, he was able to increasingly narrow the radius around her apartment. Per CBS News, he “also told police he studied seemingly innocuous details in videos the woman shot in her apartment, such as curtain placement and the direction of natural light entering the window, to figure out which building she lived in.” Ultimately, he had enough information to make a 30 km (18 miles) trip from his home to where he correctly deduced she lived. Then, he just lay in wait for her to return home, and finally, he attacked.
Sato was easily caught and just as easily convicted; he confessed to his crime and detailed his methods. According to USA Today, local media in Japan used this case as an example of the risks of sharing what may be innocuous information online, warning that “even casual selfies may show surrounding buildings that will allow people to identify the location of the photos.” And that’s not the only safe-feeling behavior that may prove risky; per USA Today, the Japanese press outlet “also said people shouldn’t make the V-sign with their hand, which Japanese often do in photos, because fingerprints could be stolen” (although it’s unclear if that has actually happened yet).
As for Sato, he was sentenced to up to 30 months in prison.
From the Archives: Behold the Power of Dried Plums: Having a photo taken or taking a selfie? You may want to say “cheese” — or maybe “prunes.”