Twitter is a pretty cool web application. In 140 characters or less you ‘tweet’ about what’s going on around you. The service can be used on phones, your PC, from web pages, and dozens of other innovative solutions. The feed can be seen with practically all methods used to post to it. It seemed like a dumb idea to start with, but it’s really taken off. There are countless imitators and a lot of do it yourself kits to make your own site that does essentially the same thing.
You can find a lot of apps for the iPhone, Android and other smart phones that make use of Twitter and similar services. It’s become popular enough that Google has come up with ‘Buzz’ and there’s another service called ‘4Square’ that makes the idea into more of a social game. As a computer geek I see some pretty awesome applications for all this and some annoying side effects of the system that one should be aware of.
First of all I want to talk about the idea of smart phones and geo location. A lot of phones are equipped with some kind of GPS or location capability. Many times this is simply triangulating off of a cell phone tower or towers to give a rough estimate of where the phone is. This method is the most common and can be accurate to several city blocks. Some claim the phone can be located to within just a few meters. So we can reasonably say this method can be used to figure out what part of a town the device is in.
Other phones, including the iPhone and many Windows based phones have true GPS recievers in them, which can potentially be accurate within inches of where you are actually at. I’ve seen and read ‘within three meters’. For us Americans you can guesstimate that being just a little over three yards. This is a really precise location method that can be easily translated into exact longitude and latitude. With some phones I’ve been able to see what part of a building it was in. We can say that true GPS can show the exact location of a device, sometimes within mere inches of where it’s located.
The other less talked about method will actually work on a lot of computers too. By taking information about a person’s IP address on the internet, and some router information it’s not particularly hard to figure out what city the device is in. You can’t trace it down to a specific building very easy but you can get a good idea where it’s at. Google also has a database of wireless router MAC addresses all over the U.S. which CAN be cross referenced to a specific building. This type of location is fairly similar to the cell phone triangulation method but not nearly as accurate. Depending on what city the device is in and several other factors this can be used to locate the device anywhere from a city in general to a specific building.
What does that have to do with Twitter? A lot actually, especially if your phone has the location features turned on. Twitter itself isn’t a huge problem as it doesn’t always store geo-location information, however Buzz and 4Square do. As a demonstration to some friends of mine in the Dallas area I opened buzz up and looked some people up. I decided to single out a young woman I saw since that’s what your average sexual predator would do.
Within minutes I knew the girl’s name, what she looks like, and where she hangs out. I deduced she was either a college student, or someone who liked the lifestyle of a college student. I figured out what her habits were, what kind of coffee she drank, how many pets she had, how many children she had, the genders of those children and the fact that she was a single mom. Had I kept looking and cross referencing her ‘tweets’ to locations I could have probably figured out what park bench she sat at, who her friends were, and probably even where she lived. All from my phone in the span of about twenty minutes. I wasn’t even on her friends list, these were just public tweets!
To me that just screamed potential rape victim. Or victim of any of a number of other crimes. Now what I do want to point out is that Texas does have concealed handgun laws and a very loose definition for self defense. This woman might be extremely capable of defending herself and her children. If so I applaud her.
So what’s the deal? Anyone can just find anyone who uses social networking like that? Pretty much yes. Granted one would have to have a minimum amount of technical savvy and some reasoning skills that not everyone is really in possession of. So how do you prevent this stuff?
Again tightening your security settings, being careful about who you let see this stuff and using common sense about broadcasting your life to strangers. Sites like 4Square and Google Buzz are particularly annoying in that they are supposed to be public, so if you’re worried, don’t use them.
Sites like 4Square and Buzz can be used in a relatively safe manner by only checking in at highly public locations and not posting a picture. Really popular places can serve to give you some anonymity in real life if no one knows what you look like. It won’t guarantee you won’t have a stalker but it might cut down on the chances.
All that being said, most people who will stalk a person or commit a crime are not going to use Twitter, 4Square or Buzz as a primary means of targeting someone. However, in this day and age it is absolutely not out of the question.