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Twitter and Geotagging: The Conclusion

This travalogue began several weeks ago with a simple question: Should I enable geotagging on my personal Twitter account?

In my research about what some of the risks could be for users who did enable geotagging, I identified several groups of people that could be risk. They included political activists whose tweets may be used for identification and prosecution of participation in political rallies, young people who may be at risk from lecherous marketers, and sexual predators, and high-profile individuals, such as celebrities, politicians etc who are often targets of the news media, the paparazzi and so called cyber-stalkers.

Although I do not belong to any of the above groups, I’ve decided not to enable geotagging on Twitter. I’m not denying there are benefits to geotagging, many of which I think Nadine has covered in her research on Ushahidi, however the circumstances that people find themselves in those types of situations that may benefit from it are different from my circumstances.

According to this article on The Next Web, only .23% of tweets are geotagged (this article was from January and I couldn’t find any more recent data, but I wonder if this number has jumped significantly). Regardless of whether other people enable geotagging, my main concern is about the ability of this software to track people’s locations with respect to personal privacy. I understand I’m inherently giving up my privacy by participating in Twitter to begin with, but I’m not comfortable with enabling people to track my specific location. I think I would begin to self-censor my tweets if I did enable geotagging, and that’s counter to the way that I want to be using Twitter. Even though Twitter allows its users to delete their geotagged tweets, it takes up to 30 minutes before this can take effect, plus the location information that has been gathered by third-party applications is not necessarily deleted. Plus, geotagged information is exact and links to Google Maps. I also don’t use third-party applications that benefit from enabling this kind of geotagging information, applications such as FourSquare, Birdfeed, Twidroid etc.

This short video from YouTube demonstrates how to locate a random person on Twitter that has their geotagging setting enabled and sums up in under two minutes why I don’t want to enable geotagging.YouTube Preview Image

Clearly I am concerned about privacy, and therefore I think Twitter should be commended for making sure that this service is opt-in. As we’ve discussed several times in class, people rarely change privacy settings that are default, and I think they’ve done a good thing making this something people have to consciously decide to do. This is what annoyed me about Google Buzz – they made it automatic! Twitter also allow users to selectively geotag, which means if I do find myself in a situation where I’d like to reveal my location (eg I’m in some sort of emergency), I would be able to do that.

Lastly I recognize that this issue of geotagging is not limited to the culture of Twitter but has larger implications in various aspects of our society and our given media environment. For example, every time I take a picture with my iPhone it asks if I want to record the location where the picture was taken from (I say no – so at least I tend to be consistent so far!) This travalogue has made me think more seriously about the use of location-based technology more generally, when I swipe my credit card for example I realize its effectively mapping my location at that certain point in time, but in that case only my credit card company has access to it. It reminds me of The Trap, and that I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m mapping my location to a large extent regardless of whether or not I enable geotagging on Twitter. But for now, since I still have a choice, I will choose not to further allow my location to be specified without seeing a specific benefit. I don’t see the benefit of enabling other people to pinpoint my location.

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  1. mushon 12:22, Feb 15th, 10

    Great concluding post.
    One thing I slightly disagree with though is your grouping of who might be victimized by breaches of privacy. I think the current events around Google Buzz actually gives us a strong case study for that. A lot of users complained for Google’s breach of their privacy by publicly announcing what Google algorithmically calculated as their social graph. A female blogger recently complained:

    I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.

    There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.

    You know who my third most frequent contact is?

    My abusive ex-husband.

    Which is why it’s SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I’ve made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.

    Just add geolocation to that and everything becomes really great!

    So I think your choice of not enabling geolocation your Twitter is right on because we ALL need to understand our privacy and once it’s public online we just can’t.

    Google has just exploded the whole problem of invisible audiences. This is very bad news for privacy, but good news for Google share holders. The writing was on the wall, is that because Google’s Evil? No, it’s because it’s a .com

  2. nadine 12:50, Feb 15th, 10

    Thank you for your insightful post. What a scary video! On Twitter or Google Latitude, people have the option to use this feature or not; it’s their deliberate choice. There are more players in this field: have a look at this Video about Bling maps: http://www.mcwetboy.net/maproom/2010/02/ted_blaise_ague.php Bing will integrate geotagged photos on Flickr into their maps. This reminds me of our initial discussion about the documentary The Trap, and how public space every days becomes a more tightly controlled.
    As you point out, the preoccupying trend is that user data are used without previous consent, like Google Buzz (by the way, if you’d like to disable this feature, just click on TURN OFF BUZZ on the bottom of your gmail account). There are other ways of tracking down your location- even if you don’t give away your GPS information. I would have liked to read more about the security implications for people that are at risk, for example political activists or investigative journalists. It isn’t enough to turn off your cell phone; GPS data can be retrieved even in the off-mode. You need to wrap your phone in aluminum foil to stop the transmission, but this means that no other calls or data can get out either.
    It would be interesting to learn more about this.

  3. ElzbthMllr 15:37, Feb 15th, 10

    @Mushon – you’re absolutely right about the fact that ALL people need to understand the implications of geotagging. I think that I focused on several of those groups of people in my post because they seem to be groups that either wouldn’t understand the privacy implications (young people) or are targeted more often because they are famous (celebrities). But thanks for making it more explicit that really anyone could be at risk from any of those situations…It’s just frustrating to know that this trend seems to be continuing unabated (think the iPhone app Looped, or Nadine’s explanation of how Bing uses this info) and I’m not sure what can really be done about it.

    @Nadie. I meant to say this in my post, that I have been following Google Buzz pretty closely and turned it off immediately as soon as I realized some of the severe privacy implications were! But I didn’t know that about the Bing maps – thanks for sharing. I also tagged a few stories in delicious about groups of people who could have harmed from the Google Buzz fiasco (two in particular, anonymous sources from journalists and lawyers – my cousin who is a family lawyer in Atlanta sent that one to me), so you can read a bit more about that if you’re interested! I don’t think I will be wrapping my phone in foil anytime soon. Maybe that’s a challenge for a future class though ;)

  4. HoniehLayla 16:03, Feb 15th, 10


    I really enjoyed reading your post. I do agree with you that Twitter should be commended for allowing the Geo-Tagging option to be an “opt in” feature in comparison to Google Buzz – which everyone is basically “Opting Out” of. The video does concern me a bit, but as you mentioned Geo-Tagging does have it’s perks in the case of Nadine’s travelogue on UShahidi.

    What you did bring up that concerned me is that the swipe of the credit card where ever we go. I am definitely one of those people who is constantly swiping, and if the police needed to find me I’m sure they could. But lately I have been avoiding the “swipe” as I call it and pay cash. Mushon had actually posted a site on my first post a few weeks ago about committing SNS suicide – at this point, these companies are getting very carried away about knowing EVERY ounce of our behavior – maybe it’s time some of us consider the “suicide” option. I have been trying to be more active on twitter – and I still don’t see the appeal my friend :)

  5. Ryan 16:36, Feb 15th, 10

    I think its hard to escape the privacy concern with the many things we do today: swiping our credit cards, geotagging, google,com, facebook, etc. that allow “others” whoever they might be to access this information whether we want to publicize it or not.

    While the internet may be a whole new type of public sphere where possibilities to be connected are endless, the issue concerning geotagging or Ushahidi is relative to – why would you want someone to know your location???

    That video is scary. (period) But I can’t help to think of why would anyone in their right mind want to put that information on the internet???

    Now with the advent of “Google Buzz” things just keep getting more invasive as we are allowing (if we choose to-whether we know or are ignorant) others access to information about us. Privacy then becomes eroded by the accessibility, depositary information that remains on the web, and the endless amounts of people who can use this information for either good, but I believe mostly bad. Anytime that one is exposed or vulnerable creates a situation where one can become harmed when information gets into the wrong hands.

    I now wonder who’s bright idea was it to come up with this? Who started this tagging phenomenon? And why are 23% of people (if that’s the reality) buying into this privacy issue. I think that tagging Photos on Flickr or geotagging on Twitter offer more harm than good. The only situation that I can think of where this type of GPS tracking is beneficial is in the case of an emergency, but even that being said, once something is allowed. People will abuse it for the wrong reasons. I guess its “safe” to say that one should use it of course, at their own discretion like “buyer beware”.

    But then again, what’s the point??? To me, I don’t see any benefit for something like this. It becomes a self-invasion of privacy in my opinion and the people that use it I wonder if they really know what they are doing.

  6. DanJee 16:34, Feb 16th, 10

    I do think there needs to be broader look at the geo-tagging not just in Twitter, but more holistically. Only 0.23% of Tweets might be geo-tagged, but from an overall perspective I definitely think people are becoming more willing to share information about their geographical locations. The boom in Foursquare for instance speaks very loudly on the issue that people want to let other know where they are, almost constantly.

    I believe 0.23% is very much skewed because of the default opt-out option. Other metrics should be used to measure the general sentiment by the overall population.

  7. Michael O'Connor 10:22, Feb 23rd, 10

    My new iPhone app (TrackinU at http://myallo.com/trackinu ) tracks Twitter members who geotag their tweets, showing the route they took as they tweeted during trips or just around town.

    There are two things about geotagging your tweets: First, know if you are doing it! I definitely see some tweets that are geotagged when the person forgot, showing their home location, for example. I saw one female TV celebrity who was happily tweeting the location of her Malibu home until someone mentioned it to her. Twitter helps a little – you have to manually turn on the ability to geotag on their website before any Twitter client can add geotags. And of course, you then have to use a client that geotags the tweets you send.

    Second, you don’t necessarily need to tweet an exact location. TrackinU shows tweets on a map, but you can also send geotagged tweets with it. There is an option I consider very useful that will randomize the location it sends within about a mile. People can tell what town you are in, but not necessarily the exact block or building. Sometimes you do want to show an exact location, but I think all geotagging clients should allow sending approximate locations as well.