In the current media-saturated age, internet users, especially the younger generation, are highly media-liberated. As social media keeps growing in all various ways, people spend a huge amount of time on social media every day and start to pay attention to their privacy on social media since everyone has filled in personal information on all of the social media accounts and posted a lot of texts or pictures about their daily life. Social media aim to connect people and provide opportunities for users to share their information and interests with others. However, privacy starts to become a big concern for social media users, especially people who have seen lots of issues of leaking privacy, for example, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018, which revealed that the personal information of 87 million users was shared by the Cambridge Analytica company with another third-party app developer (Flew, 2021). Personal information is a huge area that may include all of our information regarding our real, offline identity. Location setting is one of the most common requirements we often meet when using applications on mobile phones. Location becomes a crucial part of individual privacy because others may find you in reality with the indication of your location and cause real threats to you in many ways. In this paper, I am going to discuss how our location information is shared on social media and why it matters in our overall protection of privacy on digital platforms. Although social media users often accept the request of acquiring location data and tagging their posts with real locations, it is necessary to pay attention to location leakage on social media platforms.
Many social media users are keen to share their location information with other friends or family members. As an essential part of sharing on social media, users turn on their location settings to check in to different new places to share their new experiences with others. According to ADT’s survey among over 1,000 mobile phone users, only 3.8% of participants said that there have never shared their location, and “people with a public account (56.5%) were more likely to share their location than those with a private account (43.5%)” (Muhammad, 2020). This function on social media platforms is designed to encourage users to produce content by sharing their customized experience with a specific location. However, Ali (2021) argues that the indication of real locations could put the user at risk since internet hackers would potentially find out where they are, and the user could be exposed to various forms of crime such as “theft, assault and similar crimes”. Thus, location, as an essential part of personal information online, turns into a double-edged sword for social media users.
Formula One driver Jenson Button and his wife Jessica Michibata experienced a dangerous robbery in 2015 because of the leak of their location on Jessica’s Instagram. According to Hutchinson (2015), Button and Michibata were robbed in the rented villa and thieves took Michibata’s $388k wedding ring amongst other things. They were not hurt by the thieves, but the robbery raised people’s concerns about how the thieves could know exactly where Button and Michibata stay and determine when the “right time” is to rob. The news points out that Michibata has held live broadcasting on her Instagram with all her images tagged the specific location on the photomap and the author suggests that “anything you post publicly that includes a note of your location is also, inadvertently, showing those who may want to target you and your belongings where you are at any given time (Hutchinson, 2015). Everyone should indeed have the freedom and the right to post what they want to inform the public on social media platforms, but it is better to take some time to consider which part of your information can be posted on public platforms, which would not pose possible unsafety or harm on you. Beyond that, the article also emphasizes that posting pictures inside your home works the same way as disclosing specific locations in the way that especially revealing your luxurious home in a picture could make you become the target (Hutchinson, 2015). Specifically, for public figures, it is crucial to check-in to specific locations for sharing their experiences with fans and possibly help brands or stores spread their influence on the public. Therefore, sharing location information is users’ freedom but also it could make the user become the target for various crimes.
Another latest case is the death of PnB Rock who is an American rapper. Based on Healey’s report (2022), PnB Rock’s girlfriend made a post that shows the restaurant they were at, and the criminals are considered involved in other high-profile attacks as well. In 2022, PnB Rock was robbed and shot just several minutes after his girlfriend posted the real location information on Instagram. It is difficult to measure if the killing and robbery directly result from the leakage of location information, but the tragedy makes people more nervous and cautious about posting pictures or tagging locations on social media posts. Because of these vicious tragedies happened, people are concerned about their location privacy on social media and start to think that the leakage of location privacy could lead to other threats to them in real life.
So how do these social media platforms collect and track users’ data, especially location data? As shown by Xiph Cyber (2022), 79% of users’ data on the photo-sharing app will be shared with other third parties to track the place where you live, where you often go, relevant businesses, and even users’ current location will be recorded by either including the location of the picture or the date the file was created by the user. The problem is quite tricky since users are aware of the collection of their data and users can obtain a variety of free online services such as sharing and posting information as an exchange. Nevertheless, users are not informed of how their data is going to be used with enough transparent explanations from the platform.
Essentially, people were born with their privacy, and it makes up each individual’s identity both in reality and online. According to Flew’s idea (2021):
“The right to privacy has been taken to be an inherent human right, albeit one that is qualified in practice by other competing rights, duties, and norms… The right of privacy should be protected as a guarantor of physical security, liberty of conscience, control over personal space, non-discrimination on the basis of one’s medical condition, sexual orientation, or disability, and freedom from arbitrary intrusion” (pp. 101).
The quote suggests that individual privacy should be protected similarly to our physical security without any type of discrimination even public figures’ privacy should be protected. Besides, Wang et al. (2016) argue that limiting the risks of disclosing location information should encourage more users to share their data, and protecting an individual’s location privacy on the location-based system is “highly desirable”. It makes sense that users are likely to share their location data with the platform if they could feel safe about how their data is going to be used and protected. According to the data policy of Instagram, Meta has already indicated that user information collected can include the content users provided, and “the location of a photo or the date a file was created” is a typical example (Instagram, 2022). It means users may have unconsciously already agreed to let the platform collect and use their data. On the data policy page of Instagram, it demonstrates that users agree to the policy when they signed up and the company’s collection and use of users’ data aims at providing customized content and products (Instagram, 2022). However, that does not clarify how users’ data is used. Users are not often aware of which kind of information or data is disclosed to the platform.
In other words, privacy is a complicated term, and it co-exists with lots of other factors. Privacy is closely related to self-determination since self-determination means the individual right to choose their future path or development. On social media, “self-determination” means “how the uploaded information is going to be handled and consumed by other users”, and another term “self-disclosure” is quite similar to “self-determination”, which means “unveiling personal information willingly” (Vgena et al., 2022, pp. 710). In our case, social media users especially celebrities are willing to share their location data with the platform to obtain more interaction with others and attention from other potential followers. The issue then comes to the concern of the trade-off between leaking privacy and gaining more convenient services.
What is more, the balance between privacy and the variety of online services offered becomes a controversial topic. People get used to using free online services such as posting information and pictures on social media. However, the reason why users feel their privacy is threatened is that companies and organizations start to try to gather as much personal data as possible. The aim to do it is to provide more customized services and information for the users so that users are likely to stay and spend more attention on their product or platform. Flew (2021) argues that the key issue is if the users need to compromise their privacy for free online service without the user’s informed consent. The “in-between” place is difficult to find. For example, if we turn off the location tracking for Instagram in the setting of our mobile phone, which will directly cause the limited use of the location function on Instagram- Instagram would not recommend other location-related customized content or help users find online posts regarding a specific place. Therefore, choosing to not share location information would limit our usage of some functions but we can better protect our privacy from our side.
From the user’s perspective, the governance of privacy is mainly depending on their regulation of what and how their information is shared in public. Users have the right to choose what type of content they want to post on social media and how they would like to demonstrate the post. In our cases, both the F1 driver’s wife and PnB Rock’s girlfriend were willing to share their experience and stories on Instagram with others with the demonstration of their real location information. Nevertheless, both of them, like most of the users on social media platforms, didn’t know that sharing location data on Instagram would become a safety issue and it’s hard to imagine how others could track you based on your location. On the level of the platform itself, the overall regulation is based on its policies and the platform oversees the use and collection of users’ data on the Internet. Such platforms are at the center of the circulation of online content, which means they have more control over regulating users’ location privacy by regulating how users’ location data is disclosed. On a larger scale, “geopolitical concern over the expansive digital surveillance practices” is one of the most common types of government-centered governance (DeNardis & Hackl, 2015, pp.763). Nation-state governance is usually focused on the protection of overall users in the country so this kind of governance works well on a general scale. The frustration is that users don’t know how their location privacy is protected since these platforms don’t have a clear, transparent explanation of the issue, and nation-state governance may not include very detailed regulations on how to protect individuals’ location privacy from being used or traded with other third parties or potential criminals. Therefore, users often have no idea how their location data is shared and used by others, and the general laws or regulations may not work efficiently in specific cases.
In conclusion, social media users should start to pay attention to their privacy especially location data since it may result in potential safety issues or attacks if others know your location information. It is crucial to know how the policy works on specific platforms such as Instagram so that users can have an idea of how their information and privacy are used in the process. I agree that there is a certain trade-off between privacy and free online services because we are all social media users and we’ve shared a lot of information online already. The concern is that it is necessary to consider potential influences or results after we share our real information or “trade” privacy for free convenient services since users are not only living on social media but also living in real society, which means it is inevitable to think about some of the consequences of leaking personal information on social media.
Ali, S. (2021). Why You Shouldn’t Share Location on Social Media? Inside Tech World. https://insidetechworld.com/security/why-you-shouldnt-share-location-on-social-media/
Data Policy. Instagram. https://help.instagram.com/155833707900388?cms_id=155833707900388
DeNardis, L., & Hackl, A. M. (2015). Internet governance by social media platforms. Telecommunications Policy, 39(9), 761-770.
Flew, T. (2021). Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 72-79.
Healey, J. (2022). Read this before you post your location on social media. Los Angeles Times.
How social media is tracking you & collecting your data. Xiph Cyber. https://xiphcyber.com/articles/social-media-tracking
Hutchinson, A. (2015). Social Media, Privacy and Scams – 3 Recent Cases That Highlight the Need to Take Care. Social Media Today.
Muhammad, Z. (2020). 17 percent of people admit using social media location data to try and run into someone [Inforgraphic].
Wang, S., Sinnott, R., & Nepal, S. (2016). Protecting the location privacy of mobile social media users. 2016 IEEE International Conference
on Big Data (Big Data), 1143–1150. https://doi.org/10.1109/BigData.2016.7840718
Vgena, K., Kitsiou, A., & Kalloniatis, C. (2022). Understanding the role of users’ socio-location attributes and their privacy implications on
social media. Information and Computer Security, 14(11), pp. 705-729. https://doi.org/10.3390/fi14110328.