Privacy and Security Implications of Geo-Location Social Media Tools
Geo-location applications and technologies are quickly becoming the latest phenomenon in social media and information-sharing, due to the ease and speed with which individuals can locate friends and key resources (e.g., closest ATM, nearby restaurants, etc.) and exchange information with people in their networks. By simply typing a few comments about what you are doing or what is on your mind into a mobile phone app, geo-location tools detect the user’s location based on the GPS coordinates of the phone – and can graphically depict the user’s current location on a map when updated. This enables the user to provide updates to their friends of their movement around town, making it easier for friends and colleagues to sync up and meet while on the go. Additionally, children can use these tools to update parents of their location in real time.
I recently participated in experiment with Fox News and Corner Alliance testing the functionality and usefulness of geo-location social media applications and technologies. I was interested in the experiment because of how useful these tools have proved to be during (and after) recent disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti and the Gulf Oil Spill. During Haiti and the Gulf Coast oil spill these tools were used by organizations like Ushahidi, and Project Epic’s Oil Report at the University of Colorado, Boulder for to collect geo-tagged information to assist in locating individuals, locating instances of oil, keeping in contact with the responding organizations and citizens throughout the recovery efforts, for on the ground situational awareness, and general accountability for people throughout the course of the disaster. As a country we could realize significant benefits in applying these types of technologies in a systematic way to public safety and disaster response, but we need to use these tools safely.
I participated in this experiment to personally experience the implications of using these types of tools on a daily basis. And while these tools may be very useful in disasters, people should be aware of some of the potential privacy issues that they present – many times without our full understanding and awareness.
Over the course of the two week experiment, I used Foursquare and Facebook Places to share my daily activities, making it a point to post an update everywhere I went – from Starbucks, the bus, my office, lunch, gym, home, friends’ houses, and wherever I went at night and over the weekend. In addition to some of these updates, I included information such as who was with me, what we were doing, or where I was thinking of going afterwards. One of the things I found quite surprising is that throughout the course of the experiment, other participants were able to “spot” me based on my updates. On the final day, I was found by the news crew and reporter, who had been following me all along, filming me without my knowledge.
At the end of the experiment, I am much more aware of how the use of these tools can violate people’s privacy and security. Below are some safety tips and lessons learned that I took away from my participation in this experiment. I encourage others to add to this list or share best practices as appropriate as well!
- Be cognizant (and cautious) about what information you share. Constant updates to a profile enable others to decipher daily patterns. For example, if someone checks into a location every day around 9am, it is most likely their place of work. Similarly, if someone checks into the same location after work, it is most likely their home, their gym, their significant other’s house, etc. These patterns enable others to estimate your location, giving those with malicious intent the opportunity to find you, rob your home when they know you will not be there, or share information about you with others.
- Conversely, even if you are careful about what information you post or with whom you share, many tools now enable individuals to tag or include others in their updates; if you are tagged or included in an update, information is posted to your profile as well. Share with your friends that you wish not to be tagged or checked into locations from their profile. Additionally, you can change your privacy settings to disable others from tagging you or posting to your wall (See Facebook Privacy Settings).
- Remain vigilant in your awareness of information shared on your profile. Choose to receive notifications that others have tagged you in a status update or photo, and maintain general awareness of your persona on the internet – once information has leaked, it’s often too late to take back control.
- Do not inadvertently share your home address or non-commercial locations you frequent by “checking in” when you arrive there.
- Finally, unfriend those individuals you do not know personally or through friends and do not accept friend requests from profiles you are not sure about.