People who are concerned about their privacy may want to stay off Twitter: New research has found that 20 percent of tweets inadvertently reveal the locations of their users.
That percentage does not take into account the 6 percent of users that already willingly opt in to reveal their locations by allowing Twitter to broadcast their locations.
The research raises big questions about a number of issues, including online privacy and commercial use of social media information. Those issues are highlighted by Twitter's giant user base: The social media giant has 500 million active users, who are expected to tweet a total of 72 billion times by the end of this year.
"I'm a pretty private person, and I wish others would be more cautious with the types of information they share," said Chris Weidemann, the study's leader author and a graduate student in the Geographic Information Science and Technology online master's program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "There are all sorts of information that can be gleaned from things outside of the tweet itself."
To prove this, Weidemann developed Twitter2GIS, an application that analyzes data such as towns' time zones and language from Twitter. In a one-week study of more than 15 million tweets, 20 percent of tweets showed user location. Additionally, 2.2 percent of tweets —4.4 million tweets in all — showed other data including GPS coordinates that helped to reveal the location of users.
"This research has been fun and a little scary," said Weidemann, who co-authored the study with Jennifer Swift, an associate professor of spatial sciences at the University of California.
Weidemann said the research is scary because data collection can be abused by a number of parties.
"The downside is that mining this kind of information can also provide opportunities for criminal misuse of data," Weidemann said. "My intent is to educate social media users and inform the public about their privacy."