There has been plenty of discussion already on privacy settings on Facebook and how our approach to sharing personal information on social networking sites has changed over the years – and I’m not going to repeat any of that. However, the recent growth and considerable hype around geo-location, location-based services, and location-sharing on social networks has taken over-sharing to a whole new level.
Applications like FourSquare and Gowalla, who let users earn badges or awards for checking-in when they visit a restaurant or other location are now often linked to Facebook or Twitter. People post their travel plans on services like Dopplr and TripIt. Facebook itself added the Places feature recently. And Twitter has captured the location of each tweet for quite a while already, provided you use a Twitter app on your GPS-enabled smartphone or allow your browser to determine your location based on your IP address.
Now this all sounds really cool and for a while apps like Foursquare are indeed a novelty and fun to use. In fact, I like to experiment with new things myself and will admit to even becoming the mayor of 25 places on Foursquare, before I quit.
The problem with all of that geo-location information is, of course, that it is more widely available than you would imagine – and sometimes it is even publicly available, e.g. when you connect other geo-location services to Twitter, or when you use the geo-tagging of tweets on Twitter itself. Keep in mind that by default all tweets are public, unless you restrict them to only your followers.
Concerns about this issue have been voiced by others before, e.g. the web site PleaseRobMe.com was launched in early 2010 and displayed aggregate information from Twitter and other sources to publicly show when a person was not at home. It was a stunt to draw attention to this problem, and the site no longer shows that info, but it was an effective theoretical experiment.
This experimental threat has now become reality. Last week, police finally caught up with a burglary gang in New Hampshire that had robbed multiple homes this summer, where the homeowners had announced via Facebook that they were not at home, on a vacation, or provided some other information that could be used to infer that the house was going to be empty.
So what about using privacy settings to make sure only your real friends can see this information? That may sound like a good approach at first, but keep in mind that once you share that information with any app or social networking website, it is stored in a database somewhere – and once it is stored somewhere it can be found and abused by someone. In fact, just this week Google fired one of their engineers for stalking teenagers, whose information he had obtained from the kids’ GMail and chat accounts.
We use GPS ankle-bracelets to track sex offenders and other criminals in our criminal justice system. As a free citizen, why would we voluntarily want to provide anybody with the same tracking information about our personal life and whereabouts?
So here is what I did this weekend to end my own over-sharing of geo-location information:
- I deleted my FourSquare account and the FourSquare app from my iPhone
- I deleted my Gowalla account
- I deleted the Twitter app from my iPhone
- I changed my Twitter settings to turn off “TweetLocation” and deleted all location information from my past tweets:
- I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone
- I adjusted my Facebook privacy settings to hide all Places information, to not allow others to check me into Places, and to never include me in “People Here Now”. I also tightened down all the other privacy settings to the maximum.
- I deleted my Dopplr account
- I decided to no longer post any messages on Twitter or Facebook that would reveal my travel plans (“flying to Las Vegas tomorrow”), current location (“family dinner at Asahi – awesome sushi here”), or my whereabouts (“I’m on the boat”)
And I’m not even sure I got all the places that I may have signed up for in the past, so cleansing my digital tracks and removing all geo-location information and ending past over-sharing will be an ongoing process…