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How and why Twitter tracks your location data

Where you go and what you do are data points that sell to you.

Last updated: 20 September 2021

Need to know

  • Twitter made more than $US509 million from data licensing in 2020
  • Location tracking within Twitter is off by default
  • You can easily remove location data from your old tweets

Twitter appears to be more interested in tracking your online movements than it does your physical whereabouts. But that doesn't mean your location history isn't valuable data.

The company makes big money tracking your whereabouts and selling anonymised data to advertisers, but you do have some control over how much of your data gets out there.

How does Twitter track your location?

Given the majority of Twitter readers and posters do so via a phone, your GPS location offers easy, pinpoint accuracy whenever you open the app, assuming you've given Twitter permission to access location data. Twitter states this is an opt-in feature that allows you to include your location in tweets, and which is disabled by default.

But as with other tech companies, Twitter has more tricks up its sleeve.

Twitter accounts can be used to authenticate third-party services, similar to how you can often use Google or Facebook accounts in lieu of creating a new login. If you use this feature, it's similar to firing up the Twitter app or opening it in your browser – Twitter might see what you're doing and get access to associated location data.

Have you ever seen embedded tweets in news articles or blog posts? This is an effective way for content producers to reference Twitter content while guaranteeing its authenticity. It also lets Twitter know you've viewed it and collects what the company calls Log Data, which can include your IP address, location and device ID, among other things, even if you don't have a Twitter account. Log data is kept for a maximum of 18 months.

And when you create an account, Twitter requires your location at the time of signing up, which it gets from your IP address or device settings.

What does Twitter do with your location data?

Advertising, data licensing, and enhanced user experiences are the three key uses Twitter has for your location data.

The places you go and things you do let Twitter personalise your feed with greater accuracy. You might receive suggestions about accounts to follow or view content more relevant to you.

Data licensing brought in about $US509 million for Twitter in 2020. This was roughly 14% of its income for that year, according to financial website Investopedia. This licensing affords the company's paying partners either wholesale or partial access to anonymised historical and real-time user data, although Twitter is unclear if this includes real-time location tracking. It also includes data shared with MoPub, a Twitter-owned company that assists app developers with monetisation, among other things.

But Twitter's 2020 annual income report (10-K) to the US Securities and Exchange Commission shows advertising is the true cash cow, pulling in more than $US3.2 billion for the company in 2020. This advertising takes shape in several ways across Twitter.

  • Promoted tweets, which turn up in your timeline and are based on Twitter's understanding of your personal account activity. Advertisers can outlay a specific kind of audience – like age, location, interests – and if you fit the bill, you might see the tweet.
  • Promoted accounts, which function similarly to promoted tweets, suggesting accounts to follow based on what Twitter knows about you and who the account holders are targeting.
  • Promoted trends, which appear at the top of the list of trending topics or in your timeline for an entire day in a country or globally. These don't appear to be personalised to your account or by extension your location.

There's one final revenue stream, the wording of which is more ambiguous than the rest. Twitter describes it as "placing advertising products that we sell to advertisers on third-party publishers' websites, applications or other offerings".

Controlling your Twitter location permissions

Twitter more-cropped

You have some control over your location privacy on Twitter. Precise data tracking is already disabled by default, but if you'd like to remove data location from any previous posts (i.e. before data tracking was disabled by default) or stop Twitter sharing your data, you can do so easily.

On a desktop browser, click ... More on the left and select Privacy and safety

On the right underneath "Data sharing and off-Twitter activity" there are a few settings that can be adjusted.

Twitter Settings top level

To adjust location settings, click on Location information. From this menu you can untick Personalize based on places you've been. But disabling this will also mean the content you see is less geographically relevant.

To delete your location history, click on See the places you've been and re-enter your password.

To disable any location information you've previously tweeted, click Add location information to your Tweets then click Remove all location information attached to your Tweets. While you're here, make sure Add location information to your Tweets is unchecked.

To stop Twitter sharing your information, go back to the "Data sharing and off-Twitter activity" section and click Data sharing with business partners, then untick Allow additional information sharing with business partners.

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Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.