Social networking reveals more than meets the eye, researchers say

A team of researchers developed an application that allows people to enter a Twitter or Instagram handle and see data about that user’s posts.
Gerald Friedland/Courtesy
A team of researchers developed an application that allows people to enter a Twitter or Instagram handle and see data about that user’s posts.

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With more than 200 million active users and 1.6 billion search queries every day, Twitter has reached a rare level of global popularity. Yet while users may enjoy the microblogging app’s ability to quickly and easily share nuggets of information with thousands of people, they may be just as horrified to discover what other information they are unknowingly releasing to the world, says a group of researchers affiliated with UC Berkeley.

Although many Internet users may believe they control what information they disclose, messages and pictures they release on websites such as Twitter or Instagram have hidden geotags embedded in them that contain data about where and when the content was created, say the researchers, who are part of the International Computer Science Institute, an independent research organization in Berkeley that is affiliated with the campus electrical engineering and computer sciences department.

“In a tweet, there are only 140 characters,” said Gerald Friedland, director of audio and multimedia research at the institute. “But in reality, there’s location and time and all kinds of other information … basically, you are completely transparent.”

Friedland and his colleagues are hoping to attack this transparency by creating a forum in which social media users can tangibly grasp what delicate information they are sharing with the world.

Ready or Not?,” a free Web application designed by the institute’s Teaching Privacy Team, allows users to enter a Twitter or Instagram handle, and in a matter of seconds, the app pulls data from the handle’s most recent 200 posts.

Green dots representing each post then appear on a map and are accompanied by the text of the post, pinpointing the exact locations from which the posts were made. Upon zooming in, a street view of each site is available.

“Whatever you’re posting, unless you set the privacy setting, will be broadcasted publicly,” said Jaeyoung Choi, a research scientist at the institute who helped design the app. “Even with the geotagging stuff turned off, there are still many other ways that technology can infer information from pictures and text. You have to make an informed decision of whether you’re going to post on the Internet or not.”

The team said the app is meant to bring light to the issue of “cybercasing,” a term the researchers coined in 2010 while researching geotags on content from Craigslist, YouTube and Twitter. Cybercasing refers to gathering easily accessible online data to commit crimes such as stalking and burglary.

When an individual posts a picture of an expensive possession on Instagram and then tweets about being on vacation the next week, it is easy to become susceptible to a robbery, Friedland said.

Though “Ready or Not?” may appear to make viewing sensitive information easy, the app only facilitates the general public’s access to and knowledge of data that criminals have retrieved and utilized for years, Friedland said.

“We knew the app would be simple to implement but very effective at the same time,” Choi said. “We thought it was a really good strategy to scare people into changing their behavior.”

Claire Chiara covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].

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