Tweets Will Soon Come With Location Data – Understand the Risks

Twitter is preparing to introduce location technology that will have the ability to give the exact latitude and longitude of the tweeter.

Though the company says the location feature will be off by default and must be chosen on a tweet-by-tweet basis and the data “won’t be stored for an extended period of time” this adds some significant additional risk factors to Twitter users.

Explaining this in a post on the company blog, Biz Stone, a Twitter founder said:

We’re gearing up to launch a new feature which makes Twitter truly location-aware. A new API will allow developers to add latitude and longitude to any tweet. Folks will need to activate this new feature by choice because it will be off by default and the exact location data won’t be stored for an extended period of time. However, if people do opt-in to sharing location on a tweet-by-tweet basis, compelling context will be added to each burst of information.

For example, with accurate, tweet-level location data you could switch from reading the tweets of accounts you follow to reading tweets from anyone in your neighborhood or city—whether you follow them or not. It’s easy to imagine how this might be interesting at an event like a concert or even something more dramatic like an earthquake. There will likely be many use cases we haven’t even thought of yet which is part of what makes this so exciting.

We’re going to release geolocation to platform developers before we add the feature to Twitter.com. Most of the mobile applications people use and love are built by Twitter platform developers. Developers will have access to this new geolocation feature early which means it will most likely be available on your app of choice before it’s available on Twitter’s web site. Later, we’ll add it to our mobile web site and Twitter.com as well.

Here’s what concerns me

The “good” uses of location data are numerous and easy to appreciate, but the negative uses should be fully understood by anyone before giving out this information.

If you are tweeting from the middle of a concert, being located out doesn’t represent a significant threat to your physical safety (though the documentation of where you were may cause some embarrassment if you were supposed to have been at work).

However, the scenario from Stone’s blog,for example, with accurate, tweet-level location data you could switch from reading the tweets of accounts you follow to reading tweets from anyone in your neighborhood or city—whether you follow them or not” has very chilling implications. Just one location-enabled tweet can position your home, work, school, or hangouts in the hands of anyone who chooses to look.

I certainly hope Twitter has been collaborating with domestic violence shelters, law enforcement, and Internet safety experts as they build this feature to ensure the development team fully understands and mitigates the significant risks this can pose to people and property.

I am also concerned about the meaning behind data won’t be stored for an extended period of time and We’re going to release geolocation to platform developers before we add the feature to Twitter.com. Most of the mobile applications people use and love are built by Twitter platform developers. Developers will have access to this new geolocation feature early which means it will most likely be available on your app of choice before it’s available on Twitter’s web site.

Does this mean that the exact geo-coordinates will disappear from tweet posts? What exactly is ‘and extended period of time? And what does it mean? That Twitter won’t store the information on their back end?

Does it mean they will guarantee that every 3rd party developer will purge this data from their records?  (I have this image in my mind of Google grabbing your location data and combining it with everything else they are tracking about you – and providing real-time Google Street Views showing where you are with a “get directions” link, half a dozen ‘contextual’ ads indicating what people know what to purchase for you, and the proximity of coffee stands for those watching your every move, and a listing of your last 10 searches plus key phrases from your email exchange with your mother.)

Levity aside, there are serious questions about the storage of any personal location data, who can access it, how long they can access it, and what they can do with it. And if the tweeter is a minor, this gets considerably more complicated.

Until there are very clear answers to these, and other questions, my recommendation is to avoid this feature entirely.

Linda

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