I have previously described the steps that you can take to get your Facebook privacy settings in check, once and for all. Now it's time to shine a light on another facet of social media: the risks associated with your location data, and how you can stay safe.
While "geotagging" comes with its upsides, location data added to your Facebook and Twitter posts is frequently abused by individuals and advertisers alike. Devious burglars, for instance, may use Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to identify potential victims.
While many are quick to dismiss these threats as alarmist scaremongering, location abuse is a clear and present threat. Let's consider another example: imagine the consequences of your child's precise location in the wrong hands, simply because of a few tweets.
Unfortunately, identifying and tracking specific targets isn't a necessity. APIs offered by Facebook and Twitter help developers process large volumes of post data, good intentions assumed.
Delving deeper into the academic side of things, one expert in the field is Chris Weidemann. A graduate of the University of Southern California, his sophisticated real-world study "Mapping the Twitterverse" was published in the International Journal of Geoinformatics three years ago.
Weidemann leveraged Twitter APIs to map and identify this data, for educational purposes, of course. Concluding his report, he noted that ample opportunities exist for the "criminal misuse" of location data in our connected world.
With that in mind, let's get into the guide. First, I'll take a look at how you can avoid sharing your location data on Facebook, before exploring the options on offer for Twitter users.
Unlike some aspects of Facebook's privacy offering, its location controls are easy to access, albeit rather limited in functionality. Geotagging is disabled by default; it can be toggled on and off while composing a post.
In addition to this, users can also edit or remove location information from specific posts if required. Both of these functions can be approached from the desktop web version of the site and inside Facebook's mobile applications.
On the web
A prominent "map pin" icon indicates that that a location will be added to the post you're composing on the Facebook site. Click the button to choose a different location (as automatic detection might be wrong) or remove the geotag.
However, you should know that removing a geotag doesn't turn off the feature for your future posts. To disable posting with your location for good, refresh the page and mouse over the map pin icon - then click on the "Remove" cross that appears.
While you cannot delete location information from past posts en masse, you can trim geotags from individual posts. Find the post you wish to remove and click the drop-down arrow, followed by "Edit Post."
Just like before, you can edit or remove the location data by clicking the map pin icon.
If you're using the official iOS or Android smartphone app, a similar process applies.
Now, let's move on to Twitter, whose location controls are straightforward and easy to use. You can switch off geotagging for one Tweet, switch off geotagging completely and choose to delete all location information from past Tweets.
On the web
Geotagging is switched off by default. If you choose to enable geotagging, it's good to see that Twitter provide some helpful information on the topic.
When geotagging is enabled, you can click on the familiar map pin icon to manually choose a location. Choosing to "turn off location" will only switch off the feature for this particular Tweet.
If you're interested in completely switching off this functionality or purging location data from past tweets, you will need to visit Twitter's settings. Click on the "Security and Privacy" option to get started.
Location-related settings are conveniently housed under the "Privacy" header - you might need to scroll down to see them.
- Untick the "add a location to my Tweets" checkbox to completely disable the feature.
- Click the "delete all location information" button to purge geotags from past Tweets.
If you choose to delete past geotags, you'll be prompted to confirm the action by clicking "OK." Note that this procedure may take up to 30 minutes to complete.
It isn't possible to switch off location functionality or delete past data from Twitter's iOS and Android apps. However, you can choose to disable location data for a newly composed Tweet.
Look for the map pin icon to edit your location or toggle the feature for a newly composed Tweet.
In the latest versions of the iOS and Android app, Twitter also give you the option of toggling the "share precise location" setting, in which your latitude and longitude co-ordinates will be attached to the Tweet. Again, this is optional and switched off by default.
While we're done with the specifics, I'd like to take this opportunity to walk through a few general tips.
Location Settings on iOS
When it comes to on-device privacy, Apple provide you with controls that firmly place you in the driving seat. One of the most useful areas is granular access to Location Services.
More specifically, that's choosing which apps can access your phone or tablet's location data. Disabling Location Services for an app will prevent any data from being shared from a particular device - it's useful as another layer of protection, just in case you suddenly get "opted-in" to a new feature.
Follow the steps below to take a look; it's good to spend a couple of minutes each month reviewing these settings:
- Open the "Settings" app on your iOS device.
- Scroll down and tap on "Privacy."
- Scroll to the bottom and tap on "Location Services."
- Browse through the listed apps and features.
- Selecting "Never" cuts off location sharing for a particular app.
Location Settings on Android
With the exception of the Marshmallow release (version 6.0), Android users can only disable Location Services globally - that is, across the entire device - rather than on an app-by-app basis:
- Open the "Settings" app on your Android device.
- Scroll down and tap on "Location."
- Here, you can toggle your device's use GPS services.
While it's good to see that granular permission controls are in the latest version of Android, your mileage may vary. For the most accurate information on this topic, I'd recommend browsing Google's official documentation.
Photos and EXIF Metadata
Finally, let's talk about EXIF metadata and your photos. EXIF refers to the additional data embedded within a photograph, which can be saved in any of the common image formats.
In addition to a wealth of photographic data (think focal length, aperture and exposure), your "smart" cameras and mobile devices might be adding precise GPS co-ordinates to your photos.
Again, while this makes cataloguing your holiday snaps a breeze, it does carry certain ramifications for your privacy.
Anti-virus veteran John McAfee fell foul of just such an EXIF geo-tagging screw-up while on the run in Central America.
Many websites and applications exist to process and read EXIF data from image files. Fortunately, you can rest assured that Facebook and Twitter, as well as many other social networking platforms, strip this metadata from uploaded photos.
In terms of your mobile or "smart" device, you can disable (or enable) photo geotagging from Location Settings.