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Who Is At Risk from Geotagged Tweets?

After doing some more research, the main problem that I see with geotagging is that it doesn’t just locate information but it locates people. Although I understand the benefits of enabling it, specifically when it comes to third-party applications, to me it tends to have an Orwellian connotation. In some ways its even worse than the world outlined in 1984, because instead of “Big Brother” watching us, we are giving up some of our most personal and private information out for free, to anyone who wants it. I also think it’s important to understand that tweets that are geotagged are accessible beyond just Twitter itself. At the end of 2009, Twitter made its content searchable by Google and Microsoft. This opens the information gathered via geotagged posts open Facebook’s status updates are also accessible in real-time search via Google as well.

There are several groups of people for which privacy issues related to geotagged tweets might be a problem. I will deal with two in particular:

Young People

Our society tends to have a priority on protecting  young people. Yet, it’s interesting to note that young people are not the primary users of the micro-blogging site (its main users tend to be white, wealthy, older males). Yet, if this demographic begins to use Twitter more, there could be serious privacy implications to any minors who choose to geotag their posts. They could be subject to a wide range of predators, from sexual predators, sex offenders, to less obviously harmful groups of people like marketers, who are interested in tracking where these groups go, when, and why, so that they can more effectively target their marketing campaigns towards them. Click here for some more demographics on Twitter users.

Public Figures

Public figures have always had to give up a level of privacy in order to hold esteemed positions, whether they are famous actors, or publicly elected officials. For whatever reason, Twitter has seen a huge amount of celebrities who use Twitter. These kinds of people who geotag their posts are opening themselves up to both rabid fans and so-called cyber-stalkers.

People Who Live in Under Repressive Regimes

I detailed the privacy risks a bit more in my first post this week so I won’t go into too much detail, but many times people will geotag their location to verify there are somewhere, (a rally, protest, etc). If this information is public, it could allow repressive governments to have access to this information, whether it is to arrest people, to locate them at the scene of a protest and prosecute them, or simply to track the habits and movement of dissidents.

A couple of other thoughts that make me question my initial dislike for geotagging…

  • If you have nothing to hide and understand the risks, what really is so bad about geotagging? What is it about the element of location that makes me (and others) uneasy about this?
  • It’s easy enough to turn off, it’s off by default.
  • As far as celebrities or public figures,, you could say they any public figure that does geotag their Tweets only have themselves to blame since it’s so easy to opt-out of geotagging, and it is off by default.
  • How is this information fundamentally different from what people post on Facebook?

To me, the most serious problems seem to be from young people not understanding the privacy implications and opening themselves up to predators.

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3 Comments

  1. Alexandra Cale 12:15, Feb 8th, 10

    I think your point about young people relates nicely back to the danah boyd piece. She made a point about how teens on social network sites are typically “hanging out” with people they already know and so they perceive that their friends (online ones and real life ones) are the only people looking at their information. If they are on twitter, they might feel the same way about their tweets – which, as you point out, could be a risk.

  2. Ryan 15:56, Feb 8th, 10

    Trying to open my mind up to the “positive” possibilities that this could be used for, I have come to think of several options. It could be beneficial in a Ushahidi-sense where something happens someone. Another option, which is quasi-romantic could be for someone to surprise their significant other in a ‘stalkerish’ kind of way. However, I think these types of uses are more contrived given the INTENT for which these tags are posted. In the case of Ushahidi, the intent of the tagging is much different. It’s as if they are quite similar concepts but their intent or focus are what separates the two.

    You definitely are right about much of the privacy issues surrounding this. The negative connotations that this program has are easy to understand, but maybe you should try to make an argument for it. Maybe try to explain why this would be beneficial. Basically, try to play devil’s advocate with yourself from this post and come up with an argument for the benefits (if there are some). Aside from that, I think in terms of the political repression, I doubt people would be geotagging if they are involved in some kind of political faction or dissent, because if they had any brains they would stay away from such publicizing their information/whereabouts.

  3. Leslie 23:06, Feb 8th, 10

    Hey Elizabeth- you make some great points here. I agree that the biggest problem with geotagging are those that decide to use it without realizing the risks. In this sense, how visible is Twitter’s disclaimer concerning geotagging (I haven’t taken a look at this yet)? I would hope they make it very apparent and stress the importance upfront to all potential users, but I doubt they do.

    I think the scariest thing for me concerning geotagging isn’t potential predators, but rather so openly giving information to marketers! I know advertisers won’t be using this information for “evil” in any way, but there’s something about so easily giving up such valuable information for free that just doesn’t sit right with me…