Clarify geoprivacy terminology and guidance

I’ve noticed that observations with the “Location” set to “Private” often come from new users. And for obvious reasons, a lot of them don’t get follow-up IDs. As an identifier, I’ve been trying to be more consistent about pasting the “Frequently Used Response” encouraging users to consider the “obscured” setting, and I often get feedback along the lines of “thanks for explaining the difference.”

Currently, when you’re submitting observations through either the website or the app, you have a choice of “Open,” “Obscured,” or “Private” but there is no readily available explanation of what those terms mean. It makes intuitive sense to me that new users are frequently observing plants or animals at or near their home, and they reasonably want to avoid displaying their home address on the site. I doubt that the “Private” option would be used nearly as much if users realized that it is basically equivalent to saying “somewhere on planet earth” and that the “Obscured” setting is just as good if you’re merely trying to avoid putting your precise address out there for the whole world to see.

Assuming that it’s not an option to get rid of the “Private” setting altogether (although I honestly don’t understand what purpose it serves in its current form where the community can’t even see which continent is involved), it seems to me that it would be helpful to change the display of the options to nudge users concerned about privacy toward the “Obscured” option. A few thoughts I had on how this could be done:

  • Rename the settings so “Obscured” becomes “Private” and “Private” becomes “No Location Info” (or something along those lines).
  • Add a pop-up warning before submitting an observation with the “Private” setting (similar to the “Missing Location” pop-up when you don’t include the location at all).
  • Add an “info” or “help” button next to the list of options that the user can click on to get a more complete explanation of what the different settings mean.

from my perspective, if an observation has its true coordinates obscured by the system, those true coordinates are still vulnerable to discovery by some people determined enough to attempt discovery. so i would not consider obscured observations private in any sense of the word.

personally, i would not encourage people to use the obscure setting because of my statement above.

The main purpose of ‘private’ observations, at least in my view, is they allow someone to make an observation that can reach research grade (though it rarely does since location filters don’t pick them up) without sharing so identifiers don’t see them) without sharing a location and also allows that location to be shared discretely with project administrators and conservation associations. it’s a bit edge case in terms of what iNat is really about, and I don’t think it gets much use.

The obscuring system is not perfect, but it works pretty well. It’s like a door lock. Yes in theory someone can get in your door, with a battering ram, by shooting the lock, etc, but that’s a huge escalation. Likewise it’s possible people can game the system or even hack into iNat to get obscured or even private coordinates, but the motivation to do so in most cases is very small. If it’s something with very high motivation to access the data, you are best not posting the location data on iNat or anywhere else on the internet. There are things I see that I don’t post on the internet - certain herp species i just plain will never post, ginseng i don’t post… in some cases I am on private land but know the landowner wants a high level of discretion, etc. It’s too bad, but that’s just the way of the world, and obscuring works for most things.


I think “obscured” is a good name, but “private” should be changed to “no location information shared” or something like that.

When I first got on iNaturalist, I misunderstood “private” to mean “on private land.” I’ve communicated with people who really want the location treated as in “obscured” but picked “private.” Better labeling would help.

I understand that a completely hidden “private” option has to be available (some people do want it) but it frustrates me. The information becomes completely useless except as a pretty picture, and sometimes the organism isn’t identifiable without location information.


“Hidden location”, maybe?

Though, personally, I have no issue with the current terminology.

I totally get the privacy and security/safety aspect, but I still can’t help thinking it’s like joining a photo sharing site and putting up photos, but asking that they be blacked out because you don’t want anyone to look at them… but any share is good, we shouldn’t really look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak :)

When I started using iNaturalist I thought ‘location visibility’ meant the actual visibility of the location in the real world. So if the spot was in a public space or visible from a public path or space I’d mark it as open, if it was on private land and couldn’t be seen from a public space I’d mark it as private, and I couldn’t work out what obscured meant. The terminology still doesn’t make sense but at least I now know what it’s supposed to mean.

The problem is that the terms open, obscured and private don’t refer to the actual real-world location. They refer to my preference for sharing the location information on iNaturalist. So in my opinion a label like “Share the location information?” with options of exact, obscured, hidden, and maybe some help text, would be better.


if you’re talking about doing this in the upload screen, i think it would be easier to simply replace the items in the geoprivacy droplist. instead of “Location is public” / “Location is obscured” / “Location is private”, use “Share location” / “Obscure location” / “Hide location” or something like that. i’m thinking that should remove any uncertainty about the intent of that box. most other places, things are labeled with some reference to “geoprivacy”. so i think those other labels are probably fine.


I seem to recall that they used to – but they don’t now.

At any rate, while trying to refresh my memory, I ran across a curious observation:


Does this look like a bug?

I’ve never seen an upload screen. My use of iNaturalist is (presumably like most new users) almost exclusively on my phone app, where the label is ‘Location Visibility’ and the options are open, obscured, private.


ok… i wonder why they don’t just use “geoprivacy” as the header instead of “location visibility” there?

I kinda prefer Location Visibility - a little more descriptive and less jargon-y.


I’m trying to get people to use the iNaturalist app as a way to encourage more interest and awareness of local wildlife and habitats. ‘Location visibility’ is confusing enough enough without introducing specialist terminology like geoprivacy.


i don’t agree with “more descriptive”, but if you want less jargon-y, i think “privacy” would work, too. then the choices under “privacy” could be “share location” / “obscure location” / “hide location” or something like that. (it might even pave the way for future privacy options that are not related to geoprivacy.)

besides this being a little long, labeling the option “sharing” seems to subtly suggest to me that sharing is not the default – like you have to take a specific action to share. (think about all the other apps and sites that have a share option or button and what it does in those other apps and sites.) so that’s why i would tend to avoid using “sharing” in that label.


I like share location/obscure location/hide location as options. I’ve definitely seen folks think “private” means private land. We’d have to make those terms universal across the site and apps as well.


I started using both Seek and iNaturalist today and despite being technically savvy (I’m a software developer) I couldn’t surmise what “Obscured” implied while “Private” seemed easy to guess but I was apparently wrong (I expected it to mean “stored but never shared”, not “discarded”).

I think this problem could be solved by a short description of each privacy setting:

  • Open - anyone can see the exact latitude & longitude of your observation
  • Obscured - location is stored but only visible to iNaturalist staff and/or researchers
  • Anonymized - latitude & longitude are discarded in favor of the nearest public location
  • Private - we discard all location data

I doubt my “Anonymized” suggestion is easy to implement but I think it offers a great compromise between losing valuable location data and potentially compromising the safety and privacy of users.


Welcome to the forum @olivierlacan, thank you for joining us!

Just to clarify, at least in iNaturalist (I can’t speak to Seek), location data are never discarded, they are just hidden to various degrees. The owners of Private and Obscured observations can still see their own exact coordinates (if supplied). And they can later edit their observations to less restrictive geoprivacy levels and their original coordinates will still be there to inform the new level of public display.

At least that is my understanding. Were you not able to see your own coordinates in an iNat observation that you set to be Private?


I also like share location/obscure location/hide location, except that “share location” is not much better than “open”. Neither of these describe the precise aspects of the location, which is the heart of the matter. As has been pointed out, the location is ALWAYS shared. Detailed, precise, exact, original, full, complete, etc would be equally concise and more transparent and descriptive of the setting.

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Any news re a potential change of the phrasing here? Would certainly make things more intuitive and spare countless comments explaining what these settings actually mean.

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I am aware that the Android app has a lot of features compared to the iOS app, which is very pared down.

When I was strictly an iOS app user (had no idea there was anything else), I would sometimes get polite comments from people suggesting I do functions that were not part of the app, e.g., Withdraw an ID. When I asked how to do such, they told me it had to be done on the web application. I was so surprised. Then I started reading the FAQ and the Forum and realized HOW MUCH stuff I was doing “wrongly” (e.g., Agree)! I was a bit mortified.

But, my understanding is the staff are considering better “on boarding” for new users. That could help a lot.