When we broke the story on Friday about Girls Around Me — an iOS app by Russian-based app developer i-Free that allowed users to stalk women in thee neighborhood without those women’s knowledge, right down to their most personal details — Foursquare was quick to respond within hours, cutting off the API access that the app relied upon to function.
Foursquare’s swift response to the issue effectively killed Girls Around Me, and i-Free quickly yanked the app from the App Store in the aftermath until they could figure out a way to restore service. And for a lot of people, the story ended there. The app’s gone. Why keep talking about it?
That’s exactly the way Foursquare (and Facebook) wants things.
If there was one thing in Foursquare’s eyes that Girls Around Me was guilty of, it wasn’t tracking women and getting information about them without their consent. It was getting people to talk about privacy, when Foursquare’s entire business model is based upon getting as many people as possible to share as much about themselves as possible.
When most privacy advocates get upset about services like Foursquare and Facebook, it’s not necessarily because they are grumpy gronards about social networks. What they are specifically concerned with is that Foursquare and Facebook’s privacy settings default to sharing pretty much everything, and that these social networks want to keep that fact as obfuscated as possible so that they can continue to sell the information about you that they collect. Your personal information — your life — is their product.
As we pointed out earlier today, when you sign up with Foursquare, it will automatically default to sharing your name, your sex and your last location with anyone using their API. If you have taken a profile picture — necessary to do things like become mayor of a location in Foursquare, and therefore a big part of using the app to begin with — it will share that as well, so strangers can identify you by sight. If you have linked your Foursquare account to your Facebook account, that is shared publicly as well. In fact, all of Foursquare’s privacy options are opt-out, not opt-in.
Facebook’s not just as bad, it’s worse. Their privacy settings are so complicated that when Cult of Mac’s own Charlie Sorrel wrote a guide earlier today about how to tweak their location-based settings, it took him half an hour of searching to find them. He described Facebook’s privacy settings as labyrinthine, and even if you know your way around them now, chances are they’ll be different next week: Facebook changes their privacy settings so often (and with so little explanation and fanfare) it’s almost impossible to keep track of what they are sharing about your life by default now.
It’s exactly because of Foursquare and Facebook’s cavalier and selfish attitudes towards their users’ privacy that an app like Girls Around Me could work to begin with. All Girls Around Me did was poll Foursquare’s API for check-ins, lay them over a map, filter them by sex and link them to that Foursquare user’s Facebook account. That description of what Girls Around Me does seems innocuous enough, but as we’ve seen, in practice, it is potentially a dangerous weapon in the hands of stalkers and serial rapists.
But Foursquare shut off access to Girls Around Me, saying it violated their API policies. So clearly, Foursquare doesn’t think tracking women without their knowledge is okay, right?
We were curious about just what API policy Girls Around Me had violated, so we reached out to Foursquare and asked them to clarify. Foursquare’s statement on the matter, emphasis ours.
We have a policy against aggregating information across venues using our API, to prevent situations like this where someone would present an inappropriate overview of a series of locations.
Got that? Girls Around Me was killed by Foursquare not because it allowed you to track women without their knowledge or consent. It was killed because it allowed you to track women without their knowledge or consent at more than one venue at a time.
Amazing. By this logic, i-Free could restore core functionality back to Girls Around Me just by limiting the venues a user can track to one at a time. But is that really any better? It still allows creeps — whether potential stalkers, rapists or just pick-up artists and ballers — to research women who probably don’t even know they are exposed as potential “targets.” The only difference is, they’ve got to have a venue in mind, not just a neighborhood: the Independent, say, instead of Union Square in Somerville.
Of course, we suspect this isn’t the real reason Foursquare killed Girls Around Me, and if i-Free did release a version that was limited to one venue at a time, Foursquare would just find another excuse to kill it. It’s like the FBI getting Al Capone for tax evasion; there were bigger reasons why the Feds were gunning for him, but a technicality was good enough to put him away.
The truth of the matter is that being able to share your information with third-parties is Foursquare’s revenue stream; the more educated users are about the very real issues concerning internet privacy, the more likely they are to take control of their privacy settings and cut off some of the informational tributaries feeding that stream. And that’s the last thing that Foursquare and Facebook wants
Just because Foursquare and Facebook are invested in getting users to share their data online, though, doesn’t the real fault lie with the women sharing more about themselves online than they are comfortable with? After all, a woman (or man, for that matter) with her privacy settings locked down couldn’t have her information exposed by an app like Girls Around Me. Shouldn’t these women have known better? Aren’t they just inviting disaster by being so woefully informed about what they are showing the world?
I have to admit, there was a time when I thought this way. That’s before I saw the looks on the face of friends — all of whom were smart, all of whom were more or less technically savvy — absolutely terrified by what an app like Girls Around Me could do. That’s before I heard from hundreds of women over the weekend who had absolutely no idea Foursquare and Facebook shared so much about them by default. And the reason they have no idea? Not because they’re stupid, or careless, but because Foursquare and Facebook ultimately don’t want them to know.
Let’s say there’s a dark alley in your neighborhood between two popular local bars, and you know that many women have wandered down that late at night and unwittingly been attacked. How long until you stop saying it’s the women’s fault for being stupid or careless enough to be victims, and start parceling out some of the blame to the two bars that don’t care enough to install a street light to keep that alley well-lit?
It’s the same thing. Foursquare and Facebook could shine a light on privacy issues, but they don’t. They keep privacy matters murky and dark. And that makes a lot of us closer to being victims than even the smartest of us could possibly know.