When the creepy girl stalking app Girls Around Me went missing from the iTunes App Store last night, it wasn’t immediately clear who had pulled it: Russia-based i-Free, the developer behind the app, or Apple itself.
Now i-Free has clarified matters. They pulled the app themselves… but not because they think they did anything wrong. In fact, they’ve gone as far as to say that it is “unethical to pick a scapegoat to talk about the privacy concerns. We see this wave of negative as a serious misunderstanding of the app’s goals, purpose, abilities and restrictions.”
In my original report, I was extremely cautious about vilifying i-Free an Girls Around Me. In fact, I stated very clearly that Girls Around Me wasn’t the problem in itself: it was the fact that Foursquare and Facebook allow people to be this exposed without their explicit knowledge.
Even so, though, it’s hard to get on board a response that says the app’s “goals [and] purpose” had been misinterpreted. In fact, i-Free’s response here is patently absurd. From the official website:
In the mood for love, or just after a one-night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control! Reveal the hottest nightspots, who’s in them, and how to reach them…
Browse photos of lovely local ladies and tap their thumbnail to find out more about them.
We never said Girls Around Me did anything different from what i-Free is freely admitting here in their own marketing pitch. Girls Around Me lets you identify women, find out where they are, look at pictures of them and then research their personal lives, all in pursuit of a “one-night stand.”
In other words, the app itself is marketed clearly at making women easier targets for ballers and pick-up artists. That stalkers and serial rapists could also use it (but that i-Free doesn’t want necessarily them to) doesn’t make the app’s explicitly stated “goals [and] purpose” any less abhorrent.
i-Free also says:
Girls Around Me does not allow anonymous usage of the app. It is impossible to search for a particular person in this app, or track his|her location. The app just allows the user to browse the venues nearby, as if you passed by and looked in the window.
I’m sorry, what? True, Girls Around Me doesn’t allow you to use the app anonymously — you must log in with a Foursquare account when you load up the app — but the girls some perv might be stalking with the app don’t have access to that information, or even know they’re being watched. That makes it effectively anonymous. As for there being no difference between Girls Around Me and passing by a club and looking in the window, gimme a break. I can’t literally discover everything about a girl — from where she went to elementary school to what she looks like in a bikini thong — by glancing in a club venue. With Girls Around Me, I can.
i-Free’s other points are better. They say that all Girls Around Me did was mash-up publicly available Facebook and Foursquare data and display it on a map. All people seen in Girls Around Me can opt out of being seen in the app in their Foursquare and Facebook settings. It’s just this message that caused us to write about Girls Around Me to begin with as a wake-up call about privacy.
As for why the app had been pulled, i-Free says that Apple had nothing to do with it. Instead, Girls Around Me was pulled because Foursquare revoking API access to the app had effectively broken it. They noted that the app had been downloaded over 70,000 times, and that they were currently working hard to restore functionality to the app for existing customers.
Here’s i-Free’s full statement, as given to the Wall Street Journal (but not to Cult of Mac, who expressly reached out to i-Free for comment in response to our piece):
Girls Around Me app was designed to make geo-social exploration of popular venues easy and visual.
We follow the geo-social trend for mobile devices that is supported by numerous location sharing services, networks and apps. Many other mobile apps provide the same or more extended functionality using location data provided by APIs of major social networks, i.e. Ban.jo or Sonar.
Girls Around Me does not allow anonymous usage of the app. It is impossible to search for a particular person in this app, or track his|her location. The app just allows the user to browse the venues nearby, as if you passed by and looked in the window. The Girls Around Me user has to be registered in Foursquare and must be logged in this service to be able to see anything in Girls Around Me. The app Girls Around Me does not have access to user login and password, authentication is carried out on the social network side. Girls Around Me shows to the user only the data that is available to him or her through his or her accounts in Foursquare, and gives the user nothing more than Foursquare app can provide itself (when you browse venues around you in Foursquare, you can see how many people checked in there and you can see their profiles and photos, even contacts and social networks profile). The aim of the app is to make the usage of this data more convenient and more focused on finding popular and crowded venues.
Girls Around Me has no ability to change, limit or expand information that is available to the user through his or her account in social network. Girls Around Me does not use any self-developed or third party services to search for extra information apart from the information the users share with others. Girls Around Me does not put together data from different social networks.
The Facebook accounts shown as available to send a message are the accounts that Foursquare users make public in their profiles. Girls Around Me does not allow anonymous usage of the messaging service. We made it perfectly clear that any personal message can only be sent from the user’s account in Facebook (if he or she has one), and it can be done only if messaging is allowed by privacy settings of the recipient user.
The app was out for several months already and has not been promoted in order to first to receive user feedback and address privacy concerns, if necessary. Girls Around Me was downloaded more than 70 000 times. Since the app’s launch we’ve seen numerous positive comments from users who claimed that the app helped them to discover “hot spots” – venues that are popular among girls or boys. Since the apps launch till last Friday nobody ever raised a privacy concern because, again, it is clearly stated that Girls Around Me cannot show the user more data than social network already does.
We understand that privacy is a serious matter. We were planning to continue developing the app and limit it to showing only public places and venues. We understand that user generated data might not reflect the real public or private user space (a user can indicate his private space as public and vice versa), but we intended to bring our best effort to work on the available APIs to develop filters to limit user access only to public venues shared by other users.
We are absolutely convinced that it is good and important to educate the users to take care of their privacy and what they share publicly. But we believe it is unethical to pick a scapegoat to talk about the privacy concerns. We see this wave of negative as a serious misunderstanding of the apps’ goals, purpose, abilities and restrictions. Girls Around Me does not provide any data that is unavailable to user when he uses his or her social network account, nor does it reveal any data that users did not share with others. The app was intended for facilitating discovering of great public venues nearby. The app was designed to make it easier for a user to step out of door and hang out in the city, find people with common interests and new places to go to.
We have removed the application from the iTunes Store, because the users get repetitive error message, and we feel that until we find a solution and be able to provide full service, we should restrain from acquiring new users. We shall put our best effort to support the apps existing users and address their concerns.
We are working on providing all necessary comments and data to prove our good intentions. We were (and are) making our best efforts to develop an app that fits user expectations without going beyond the restrictions of social networks.