Is Twitter's Geolocation Tool A Privacy Landmine?

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Twitter's upcoming geolocation feature has many social networking mavens cheering, but as with Google Latitude before it, some industry observers are raising concerns about security and privacy when the tweeting multitudes begin advertising their exact locations to followers.

"This feature would make the top 10 list of things a thief most wants to see on Twitter," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, told TechNewsWorld Friday.

"For instance, if the feature is on because you want people to know where you are vacationing, people will also know you are away from your home and that your stuff is relatively unprotected," Enderle said.

Twitter said this week that geolocation applications built by developers who will soon have access to a special API from the company will be delivered on an opt-in basis to end users of the microblogging service. Tweeters will have to switch on such apps themselves and even if they do, their exact location won't be stored for an "extended period of time," according to Twitter.

Geolocation apps many not be available yet on Twitter, but the story sounds remarkably similar to Google's rollout of a Google Maps add-on for mobile devices called Latitude back in February. As with the proposed Twitter tool, Google Latitude users have to switch on the service to be "seen" by followers, right down to their precise GPS location.

But even if such services are opt-in, privacy advocates remain concerned about the prospect of delivering such intimate information across the Internet. When Google Latitude first came out, Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, questioned whether employers might use the tool to track employees' movements -- essentially forcing workers to switch on Latitude in what could amount to a major invasion of privacy.

"What about the employer who makes it a condition of employment that employees allow themselves to be tracked?" Olds said at the time of Google Latitude's release. But the analyst seemed much more positive about Twitter's similar plans.

"The thing with the Twitter deal is that it's much more obvious that it's opt-in. That's crucially important," he said.

Twitter, headquartered in San Francisco, maintains that adding "latitude and longitude to any tweet" will layer on important contextual information "at an event like a concert or even something more dramatic like an earthquake." That may be so, but there may be a flip side to such a feature, said Olds.

To take one recent, highly publicized example of Twitter's usefulness for spreading information quickly about on-the-ground events -- this summer's "Green Revolution" over Iran's contested presidential election -- and the dangers around the proposed tool become evident, he said. In the case of grassroots protests like those in Iran, tweeters might not want authorities to know their precise location as they disseminate information to their followers.

"If you're somebody who's commenting in an Iranian riot, you're probably going to want to have the option to opt out of the location identifier," Olds said, adding that the vagueness about how the feature would work remained somewhat troubling. If it works off cell phone triangulation, the analyst said, "there is a specter that even if it can be turned off, it could be turned on from a central location."

Then there's the generational issue. Another TechNewsWorld source, Randy Abrams of security software vendor ESET, said younger people enamored with social networking might not be aware of the kinds of trouble that can arise from advertising your physical location to the world at large.

"There's a new generation that has no concept of privacy," Abrams told the Web site, noting that he himself would not turn such a feature on.

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