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Cellphones, social media and privacy: what are you really sharing?

Like any new tech gadget I buy, I immediately become obsessed with it. My recent upgrade to the iPhone is no exception. I was taking photos, updating my Facebook status and Twittering — all on the go. But, in my blissful technological haze, what I wasn’t paying attention to was what private information I was willingly giving away.

Of particular concern was a feature called “geotagging.” Geotagging is a process that adds location data — usually latitude and longitude coordinates — to things you create or contribute to.

For the iPhone, geotagging is turned on by default through “Location Services.” Location Services, according to Apple, “employs a combination of Wi-Fi, cellular, and GPS to determine your location.” Many other services, such as Twitter, require that you opt-in to enable geotagging.

Of course, geotagging is not a new phenomenon. It’s already a part of a number of popular online services, such as the aforementioned Twitter, photo-sharing service Flickr, and is the keystone of the latest buzzed-about social media application, Foursquare.

Using geotagging, Foursquare encourages you to “Check-in” to places around your neighbourhood or in major cities. Say, you go to eat at your local bistro — check-in, and your friends and those with Foursquare can be notified that you’re there. As a reward for checking-in many times, you can become “Mayor” of that location for up to a week, and then the competition begins anew.

In my area of Toronto, a number of people check-in to the local grocery store or bar. Since these places are all near by, I can scan the area from my home and find out who’s around — and find out more about who they are and what they’re doing.

In return, I realized, that people potentially could do the same to me. And quickly, after a week of fun, I logged off, as I wasn’t willing to trade off my personal privacy for the service.

“Foursquare is all opt-in, so no one knows where you are unless you tell Foursquare where you happen to be,” says Dennis Crowley, a co-founder of the six-person company. “All the privacy controls are implicitly built in.”

But depending on how you set up your privacy controls, at its most liberal, Foursquare can show strangers where you are, with a photo, and links to your Twitter and Facebook profiles where more personal information can be made available.

For example, I Foursquared the CBC Headquarters in Toronto.

The “Mayor” is Dave H. He has an identifying photo and you can access his full Twitter and Facebook accounts. From that, I discover he’s a colleague, what he does, who he’s in a relationship with, his email address, his dot-com, how old he is, who his friends are, what made him cry recently on CNN, and freely browse through detailed photos of his house — both interior and exterior.

So I went to Dave H. — real name, Dave Hamel, CBC.ca project manager, to ask him all about his private info online. What does he think of what I found?

“I don’t care,” he says with a laugh. “What more do you want to know?”

He’s nonchalant about how much of his personal information is up for public scrutiny.

“It doesn’t scare me. I’m not scared of opening these doors. You can’t hide anyway. If I really want to find out about anyone online, it’s very easy.”

However, unlike Hamel, many people who join services like Foursquare often don’t realize what they’re giving away in terms of personal privacy.

“You’re letting people know you’re not home, and where you are,” says Jayson Agagnier, a Toronto-based computer security consultant and social networking expert. ” When it comes to personal networking, I always ask, would you take out a quarter page ad in newspapers in every city and say I’ll be at this place on this date or at this restaurant? Because this is essentially what you’re doing.”

Terry Cutler, a certified ethical hacker and computer security expert in Montreal is even more blunt.

“There is no patch for human stupidity,” he says. “When you post that you’re going to the store at this address, with a time and date stamp, you open yourself up to being stalked or worse.”

So what’s behind the motivation to reveal all to your friends – and potentially the world?

“Vanity,” says Agagnier. “Technology feeds into that easily. It’s accessible, simple to use and because of that, people don’t think about the longer-term consequences.”

Our CBC Foursquare mayor of the week agrees.

“Absolutely there’s vanity involved,” says Hamel. “I’m willing to be open and want to share.”

But at what personal cost?