Location Data Still Found In 20 Percent Of Tweets
September 4, 2013

Location Data Still Found In 20 Percent Of Tweets

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Even with location data turned off, it’s still possible to send out Tweets with this information. With more people engaging in the privacy conversation, a new study from the University of Southern California (USC) reveals some Twitter users aren’t being as careful as they could be to protect their sensitive information.

After sampling some 15 million Tweets, the researchers found almost one in five 140-character strings of text also contained geographic information about one’s current surroundings. Even with location tagging turned off, a Tweet could give others plenty of information about a user’s current position.

This, said the paper’s lead author Chris Weidemann, should be enough to make Twitter users think twice about what they say and how they say it. To prove his point, Weidemann created a web application that shows Twitter users how much geodata they’ve sent out via the microblogging service. The study is published in the current issue of the International Journal of Geoinformatics.

“I’m a pretty private person, and I wish others would be more cautious with the types of information they share,” explained Weidemann, a graduate student in the Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIST) online master’s program at USC. “There are all sorts of information that can be gleaned from things outside of the tweet itself.”

Third parties, including apps like Foursquare and Untappd, allow users to send out Tweets with their location despite the user’s tagging settings in Twitter itself. According to Weidemann’s research, some six percent of Twitter users opt-in and include this data in their Tweets. Moreover, other users send Tweets that, while they are not tagged with location metadata, contain information about being in or near a specific location.

Using APIs from Google and Twitter, Weidemann built a web app called “Twitter2GIS” to highlight how many messages are floating around Twitter with this kind of embedded information. The app can search through publicly visible Tweets, scan them for information in the same way other apps search for trending topics, and place the location on a Google-provided digital map. Weidemann says over four million Tweets are sent out every day that contain this “ambient” location data, and often the user might be unaware they’re letting the world know just where they are.

“The downside is that mining this kind of information can also provide opportunities for criminal misuse of data,” said Weidemann. “My intent is to educate social media users and inform the public about their privacy.”

Twitter2GIS is currently in beta, but Weidemann and team are asking people to use it and leave their feedback.

In his research, Weidemann says he was able to collect some eye-opening data from even those Tweets without a tagged location, often down to street level. While unnerving, it’s also important to remember this location is sent out by the users by choice rather than as the result of some tricky privacy practices. As it stands, the user is still in control of what they share, including subtle hints about their current location.