A new study from Worcester Polytechnic Institute shows mobile online social networks are providing tracking sites and other third parties with users' physical locations or the unique identifiers for their mobile devices and other information.
The paper, "Privacy Leakage in Mobile Online Social Networks" (PDF), was unveiled last week at the 3rd Workshop on Online Social Networks conference in Boston. The researchers took a look at 13 mobile online social networks, including Flickr, Loopt and Foursquare, as well as seven traditional online social networks that allow users to access them with mobile devices. In the latter group were social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
The researchers examined what personal information users can - or in some cases, must - post on these sites and at the sites' privacy policies. They also monitored what data gets sent to third-party tracking sites. What they found is that all 20 sites leaked some kind of private information to third-party tracking sites.
Only two of the sites were found to share location information directly. Several others, however, use a third-party map service to show the location, the researchers found.
"This initial look at mobile online social networks raises some serious concerns, but there is more work to be done," said Craig Wills, professor of computer science at WPI and co-author of the study, in a statement. "The fact that third-party sites now seem to have the capacity to build a comprehensive and dynamic portrait of mobile online social network users argues for a comprehensive way to capture the entire gamut of privacy controls into a single, unified, simple, easy-to-understand framework, so that users can make informed choices about their online privacy and feel confident that they are sharing their personal, private information only with those they choose to share it with."