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Social media users urged to get smart

Monday, 26 September 2011


  • The geotagging function in social networks raises privacy concerns for users.

    The geotagging function in social networks raises privacy concerns for users.

ECU researchers are collecting publicly available, geotagged information from social networks to create a real-time map of where users live, work and socialise.

The research raises serious concerns about the privacy and safety of those who use these services. But it also offers new opportunities for law enforcement and advertising.

Peter Hannay and Greg Baatard, from the secau Security Research Centre, are lead researchers on the GeoIntelligence project.

As part of this project they have developed software to collect and analyse location data that is commonly included in posts and photos on social media sites such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter and FourSquare.

“If a user makes publically accessible, geotagged posts, it is relatively easy to identify their home address, workplace, local shopping centre, hobbies and interests and their favourite bars and restaurants,” Mr Hannay said. 

“With further analysis, it is possible to plot a user’s daily routine and infer where they are likely to be at a particular time.”

Mr Hannay said the research highlights just how much information people are willing to share about their location and routines. A key part of the GeoIntelligence project is to encourage users of social networks to evaluate their privacy settings.

“In many social networks, the default option for posting content is to include location information. Hopefully by making users aware of the fact they can be tracked, it will encourage them to take another look at what they share and with whom,” he said.

But the ability to track and analyse a social media user’s location also offers several positive outcomes. Law enforcement agencies could use the information to identify witnesses to a crime.

“If a crime was committed, police could use the geotagged information to identify who was in the area at the time of the incident. Similarly, in seeking to identify suspects of a crime, police could analyse the available data to find those whose daily routines fit a certain profile,” Mr Hannay said.

He said the information could also benefit businesses and advertisers.

“The owner of a cafe could scan the social network posts from their premises and determine the demographics of their clientele and target their products and promotions to a specific group at a certain day or time.”

“Advertisers could use the data to pinpoint the demographic of foot traffic in an area and then ensure billboards are targeted to that group.”

Mr Hannay and Dr Baatard are now focusing on further analysis of the data, seeking to track who people interact with and identify the lines of influence within a social circle.

Mr Hannay said this information could be of interest to marketers who wish to pinpoint influential individuals in a particular social group.

Five tips for staying safe on social networks

  1. Turn off all geo-location and check-in options on your social networks.
  2. Turn off the GPS on your smartphone, tablet or other device (this will also improve battery life)
  3. Disable the geotagging of photos in applications like Twitter.
  4. Think about the total picture you are creating with your social media posts over time, rather than what the individual posts reveal.
  5. Limit the sharing of personal and location information via social networks to people you consider your friends.

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