A story I’ve been following with some bemusement on Techmeme is the freak out about the Girls Around Me app. It started with the article in Cult of Mac titled This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy [Update] which strangely blamed Facebook for the fact that an app was written using the FourSquare API that showed women who had recently checked in on FourSquare. True, some of these women had linked their Facebook accounts to FourSquare so one could click through to their Facebook profile but they also can link their Twitter profiles as well which is strangely not mentioned in the original article.
The reactions against the app have been swift. FourSquare banned the app from calling their API and listed a number of Terms of Service violations as the reason including
We also reserve the right to revoke access to our API for any reason, at our sole discretion. That being said, we aim to be consistent and transparent in our policies and how we enforce them
Apple has similarly acted against them and pulled the app from the Apple app store as well. I’ve found all of this interesting since none of this is new and FourSquare itself enables and encourages the sorts of thing this app has done.
The notion of using check-ins as a way for single people to find where the ladies are during a night out is not new. The eponymously named Where The Ladies At app has been doing this for over a year but anonymizes the information so that you can tell that there have been 10 check-ins from women at that new nightclub in town and only 3 from the bar nearby but doesn’t show who they are. However FourSquare itself had already signaled that it planned to move beyond anonymization in an interview granted to the Wall Street Journal a mere three weeks ago titled Foursquare Moves Beyond Check-Ins which states
Crowley said the company started noticing that many of its 15 million users weren’t using the app’s main function: a check-in feature that lets people broadcast where they are to their friends. Instead, users are increasingly turning to a feature the company launched in February last year called Explore, which gives users data about places around them that their friends have visited and shows them tips that have been left behind.
“There are a lot of people using Foursquare who aren’t checking in. People just open the app to consume data,” explained Crowley. “That’s a really important and interesting trend.”
Crowley said he had an epiphany at the end of 2011 that he needed to pivot the app to make consuming data a more central experience. For example, Crowley said Foursquare’s next version will focus more on Explore. The company also launched a feature in October called Radar, which users can turn on to alert them when they are near places Foursquare thinks they might enjoy.
If you are a FourSquare user, you can try out http://www.foursquare.com/explore and it is hard to understand why it is OK but Girls Around Me isn’t. I posted a screenshot of the Explore part of the FourSquare iOS app and here it is showing me some coffee shops in the Puget Sound area.
The reality is that this is the first time the media has really stopped to think about the risks of using FourSquare and has blown some of their realizations out of proportion. The fact of the matter is if
- You connect your Facebook or Twitter account to FourSquare AND
- Enable public check-ins
Then total strangers can see where you currently are in real-time and look up more information about you than you’d expect a total stranger sitting across from you at Starbucks would have.
I think this is really a user education issue about the risks of taking the above two steps. I also think this is being blown out of proportion by the tech press who don’t use FourSquare and can’t come to grips with the fact that people may be OK publicly sharing where they are on FourSquare since they had to turn on the feature in the first place. Of course, FourSquare pushes you to do this by tying being able to become the mayor of a location to sharing your check-ins publicly but it is still a step users have to explicitly take.
Personally I can’t wait to see if Apple or FourSquare ban the FourSquare iOS app for enabling the same scenarios as the Girls Around Me app. ;)
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