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Twitter Geolocation: Why meta-data matters

Think not specifying your home location on your Twitter account makes you geographically anonymous?  Think again!  A recent study published on arXiv describes “a method which can geolocate the overwhelming majority of active Twitter uses,independent of their location sharing preferences, using only publicly-visible Twitter data.”.  Ryan Compton, David Jurgens, and David Allen, all of HRL Industries, developed the algorithm for tracking you down by using the information of the people you’ve tweeted to.  According to their research, if you tend to stay in the same place, and tweet a significant amount, they can find you.  In a sample of 101,846,236 Twitter users,, they were able to geotag approximately 89% of public tweets with a median error of only 6.33 km.

The more you tweet, the easier you are to find.  It’s not because you’ll slip up and reveal your location.  The algorithm described works by analyzing a network of your @mentions of other users.  Apparently, the more you tweet, the more likely you are to use @mentions, see the figure below.  Eventually, if you tweet enough to enough friends with publically available geographical information, you’ll be found.

How to avoid being found
There’s good news for EDA account managers and application engineers on the lam.  The technique described in the HRL Industries report just doesn’t work if you move around a lot.  Also, if your network of Twitter buddies is geographically diverse, then as far as the HRL algorithm is concerned, so are you.

Who paid for all this?
You only get one guess.  Are you ready?  Need more time?  You got it, it’s your friends at the United States Government intelligence organizations.  Seriously though, your meta-data is harmless, and they promise they’ll never use it.  Another, less obvious, sponsor of the work is the U.S. Deparmtent of the Interior National Business Center.

2 Responses to “Twitter Geolocation: Why meta-data matters”

  1. ScienceSeeker Editor’s | ScienceSeeker Blog Says:

    [...] Twitter Geolocation: Why meta-data matters at The Canonical Hamiltonian by Hamilton [...]

  2. Meta data matters; Smart driving; Heterogenous processing in the cloud; What would you wear next? | Systems Design Engineering Community Says:

    [...] is Big Brother watching, he is tracking you too, with meta data tags. Hamilton Carter looks at the HRL Industries algorithm that produces the data that everyone promises never to [...]

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