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What are the privacy implications of geotagging on Twitter?

What are the privacy implications of enabling geotagging on your Twitter account?

In November of 2009, Twitter added a feature which enabled users to selectively “geotag” their tweets with their exact location. They said the goal of this was to provide more of a context to users’ surroundings. It allowed users to tweet about places and add a context to their tweets, connect with users at a local level, and join in on local conversations. It was, and remains, an opt-in service, which meant that users had to enable the feature (it was off by default). While there are benefits (some of which are mentioned above) to enabling geotagging, Twitter asked its users to consider several issues including: geotagging uses your exact location, it is available to everyone (even if you delete it) and turning it off does not mean your old data will necessarily go away. It enables third-party applications to use this data, but can always be disabled at the user’s request. One advantage that came out of this decision was the ability of Twitter to track local trending topics in various cities or countries, rather than the summation of all trending topics worldwide. One of the primary disadvantages has to do with privacy – one can imagine a situation in which a user live tweets a protest in a country and an authoritative government uses the geo-tagged location to arrest them. One serious consideration for anyone enabling geotagging is that if you chose to remove your location history, you can do so on your settings page, but it can take up to 30 minutes. And, although you’ve deleted the information from Twitter, they cannot guarantee that the information will be removed from all 3rd party application copies. After enabling geotagging, Twitter updated its privacy policy (click here to read it). I noticed that in the policy “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly.” Clearly this is both an advantage and a disadvantage, but in what sense is adding your exact location to tweet aiding the amount of information that gets put out there. Is it in a good way? The issues remain, should one (namely in this case, me) enable geotagging on my tweets?

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  1. Leslie 16:26, Feb 5th, 10

    Hey Elizabeth- yea, Twitter’s geotagging seems pretty scary. The fact that the information does not necessarily disappear when one decides to disable geotagging makes it even scarier. I feel like the average person does not know this, and does not take it into account when enabling geotagging. I doubt many people actually read Twitter’s disclaimer before proceeding to use geotagging. This could be an interesting topic to explore- finding people that do currently use geotagging and see if they’ve read Twitter’s privacy policy concerning it. You could also talk to people that are considering enabling geotagging in the future and see what is holding them back- if they are currently weighing any particular pros and cons to using it. I did not know much about geotagging before reading your post. But, I definitely don’t think I’ll be enabling it any time soon now!

  2. mushon 10:10, Feb 6th, 10

    Leslie, I think the final note of your comment is revealing. You’re saying you won’t enable geotagging “any time soon”, but I bet soon ago you would say the same about using micro-blogging, social network sites… What needs to happen for you to enable geotagging? I am guessing many FourSquare users didn’t publish their geolocations online, but once they get an incentive (like free alcohol) they change their ways and privacy is the first to go.
    Elizabeth, you mentioned an example in which geotagging might compromise the privacy and well being of political activists. Can you think of less heroic scenarios where geotagging might raise serious privacy concerns and may get users to give up the exciting possibilities that geotagging provides?

  3. Ryan 16:40, Feb 6th, 10

    Geotagging ‘can’ be dangerous if you have a ‘gawker stalker’ on your tail.

    Mushon, you mention, “Can you think of less heroic scenarios where geotagging might raise serious privacy concerns and may get users to give up the exciting possibilities that geotagging provides?”

    - I think that someone could be more susceptible to assault or a violent act with this type of program that allows people to see exactly where they are. It’s a trackers dream – if you wanted to harm a person. It makes a person a VERY EASY PREY. It’s like, “Here I am!” especially, if the person doesn’t know that they are in danger. With the pros to the program, I think this is one of the biggest con/issue concerning privacy for that matter. Then again, if you do not mind knowing that people are aware of your whereabouts then go ahead. But just remember, that there is a risk involved. Here’s a quick thought on the use of geotagging with photos.


  4. ElzbthMllr 16:05, Feb 8th, 10

    You make a lot of interesting points. I think that there are a few good things that come from geotagging. First is that it increases the amount of available data, which can lead to clearer studies about the effectiveness of Twitter. Tons of stuff went out about Twitter on Iran. How many of those were from people actually inside Iran, for example. If we had more data about locations people were Tweeting from, it could help us understand the uses of the tool better. You see the same thing now with Haiti trending for almost a month. In this sense I see it almost as a method of verification.

    Also, I think that although people know they will be “easy prey” in political type situations, it also makes a public record of where they were. It’s a way of saying, hey I’m here, and yes that makes them more of a target, but for a lot of people this is the only way to exercise freedom of expression.

  5. Leslie 16:28, Feb 8th, 10

    @Mushon Yes, the opportunity is definitely weighing in my mind to try it out at some point. I’ve always been wary when it comes to social media platforms, and tend to wait to hear how and why friends are enjoying it before I decide to take part. It would probably just take me hearing from a friend of some interesting/fun feature that geotagging offers the user. Although, I’ve spent the past few weeks experimenting with Foursquare at the recommendation of a friend and recently decided to stop using it after I started getting a little freaked out concerning the amount of my privacy that was going out the window (I have this class to thank partly for that!). So, although people might begin using these location-based platforms, I can see people possibly losing interest in them as they become more aware of the negative aspects.

    @Ryan: your concern is something I also thought about when trying to come up with a topic to explore with Geocaching. The fact that these location-based social sites are allowing such specific information about a person’s location reach mass audiences is quite scary. Although I have not heard of any specific instances where someone was stalked and hurt while geocaching or using geotagging or Foursquare, I can definitely see the potential for such instances.

    @Elizabeth: The geotagging option definitely has a lot of positives, but as always, it’s a matter of weighing pros vs. cons. Being able to study Twitter through the ease of watching geotagging is interesting to people like us who are studying the media and for actual marketers, but is this a worthy pro to the con of people potentially getting stalked and hurt? I guess it all comes down to how it ends up being used in the future…

  6. deaconous 18:14, Mar 29th, 11

    While some social networks allow users to hide this information, most do not. Additionally, free networks like Facebook, even recommend that users remove this data before sharing photos using their networks. read facebook’s privacy policy, sec. 2, last sentence. I would prefer to be in control of the information that I share with others so I use a free application called Pixelgarde Photo Privacy Editor for iPhone, which lets me control when I share this type of information in my photos. It’s a simple tool and its free so why not be in control?