Monday, September 20, 2010

Privacy and Twitter lists

privacyI think twitter may have among the simplest privacy settings of any social network. Your choices are either everything you post is public, or everything you post is private.

But simple does not mean that things will stay private. Just like everything on the internet, the minute you post something someone else might choose to share it. Some researchers have actually studied how often people retweet private content on Twitter.

Something I haven't seen studied, however, is how private information can leak out through twitter lists.

Twitter allows you to make lists of people who you'd like to have grouped together. For example, I have a list of technical women who I follow. These are women in technology who I've met in person or interacted with extensively online, and I really made it for my own personal use but since it's a public list others can (and do) follow it. Presumably they're looking for more cool women to expand their social networks.

Twitter allows you to see what lists a person has been added to, and this is where it gets interesting. Let's take a look at the lists of which I am a member and see what we can learn about me.

Here's a few things you can get a glance:

Wait... what? Despite the fact that I explicitly chose to say a more generic "Canada" in my profile information, my current city can be determined by the fact that it shows up in several of the lists I'm on. There's of course no way to be sure that any of this is true, but when more than one person lists me as being in Ottawa it seems fairly reasonable to guess.

I'm not personally concerned (obviously, since I'm talking about all this information in a public blog post!) but some folk are much more private than I am.

So what are your options if you want to hide this information? Well, if I don't like the lists I'm on, I can... uh... There's no apparent way to leave a twitter list. I suspect one could block the list curator, but the people revealing your location are most likely to be actual real life friends: people you wouldn't want to block. So you'd have to resort to asking nicely, but that's assuming you even notice: while you can get notifications of new followers, you do not get notified when you're added to a list. I've been asked about exactly two of the lists I've been put on (thanks @ghc!) so obviously it's not the social norm to ask (I certainly have never asked anyone I've listed!)

A quick check says I can usually get the current (and sometimes some former) cities for many of my friends, as well as information related to their occupations, interests, and events they've attended. For most of these people, I know this isn't information they consider private either. But it's obviously possible that this could be a problem... I wonder how many people it affects in a negative way?

Maybe this is a potential little workshop paper if I have time to analyse a whole bunch of twitter lists. Anyone want to lend me a student who's interested in social media privacy?

Edit: A note for those concerned about not being that privacy-violating friend. You can make twitter lists private if you want (it's just not the default), so just do that for the lists you think are sensitive and you're good to go!


Leigh Honeywell said...

hah! it's not every day a post about web security makes me giggle out loud. well done, and interesting stuff.

also, argh, blogger doesn't support self-hosted openid providers. grump.

Brigid Keely said...

I found this via dreamwidth's latest things link. Verrrrry interesting article, and something I'd never thought of! Wow! Thanks for taking the time to point this out.