Since we posted the story, over half a million people have come to our site to read about the app, over 65,000 people have shared it on Facebook, and leading publications at home and abroad have followed our lead in reporting on the app, which we described as not just as a potential tool for rapists and stalkers that was putting thousands of women at risk without their knowledge, but a wake-up called about privacy.
Girls Around Me has since been pulled from the iTunes App Store, but considering we were the ones who stirred up so much trouble for the app’s Russian-based developer, i-Free, I thought we would reach out and give them the opportunity to set the record straight. What was i-Free thinking when they released this app? What do they make of the controversy surrounding it? Do they have any regrets? And will Girls Around Me come back?
i-Free’s responses to these questions might prove to be just as controversial as the app itself. The company denies having done anything wrong. They say it is “impossible” to stalk or track someone with their app. They say that the point of the app is just as much about avoiding ugly women on a night out as it is about looking for love. And they’re not sorry.
The following text is an e-mail interview we conducted with Girls Around Me product lead Vlad Vishnyakov. After the interview, we’ve put together some of our thoughts on i-Free’s response.
Vlad Vishnyakov: The main goal is to make venue navigation easy and comfortable.
Imagine: you want to choose a place to spend an evening – I bet you’d prefer a place full of nice people (not ugly or rude), – you might want to find a male company to watch box match in a sport bar, or look for a club where there are many girls (what’s the point to go to an empty club, anyway?). If so, you can use foursquare app or website – pick a venue, see the list of people attended, check photos and may be explore their interests on Facebook.
It works but not handy (complex and many steps to go).
Girls Around Me can do the same in a one or two simple taps.
I’d also like to make stress: it is (even) technically impossible to stalk or track a particular person with the Application.
CoM: If the purpose of Girls Around Me is, as you say, to see demographics of the people at local nightspots, why is the app called “Girls Around Me?” You say the app is ultimately about seeing if a nightspot is hopping, but your app is clearly marketed to men looking for “love or just after a one-night stand,” and the app defaults to tracking women, not men or both. For that matter, why would a guy looking to find a sports bar filled with guys watching the boxing match download an app called Girls Around Me to begin with?
Vishnyakov: Girls Around Me was initially intended to be a social discovery application, not a dating app. We saw the potential audience divided in three major groups: men curious about the women around them, women curious about the men around them, and anyone looking for a venue with people or company matching their mood or interests.
We knew that men tend to be early adopters, and from the previous app development experience we saw that men were more likely to give feedback on the application or come up with suggestions and feature requests. We also saw that there are more active male users in Foursquare than female users. These were the main reasons to start with the default option set to Girls Around Me. We kept all three modes available in the application (Girls, Guys and Venues) and stated all these options in application description in the iTunes Appstore. We wanted to obtain feedback from the users and had plans to release Guys Around Me and/or Venues Around Me as separate applications should these two options prove to be requested. From what we saw, the Venue option was highly used, so our hypothesis that users tend to be curious about both places and people was confirmed.
We believe your article was written in good faith and ultimately arrived at an even-handed conclusion: that people should carefully consider their privacy settings. However, the emphasis you placed on your friends’ reactions, none of whom had used the app in question, and a small number of factual errors that were later repeated as fact in coverage by other news outlets, have in our view helped create an erroneous view of the app’s capabilities.
CoM: What are the factual errors in my original report (and those repeated by other pubs) that your company would like to set straight?
Vishnyakov: Here are the examples.
a) You wrote: “Foursquare lets you check other people into a location. If you get checked into Foursquare by a friend without your knowledge and have a publicly visible Facebook profile, you could end up in here.”
This was corrected via a later update but was quoted and afterwards stated as if we were using Facebook enforced check-ins in several reviews.
b) You wrote: “I tapped on Zoe. Girls Around Me quickly loaded up a fullscreen render of her Facebook profile picture.”
This is not a Facebook profile picture. This is a Foursquare avatar picture. Girls Around Me has never mended data from two different networks. The only thing it did with Facebook is providing a link to profile and Facebook messaging API if (and this is important) the Foursquare user has put a link to his or her Facebook account in their public profile.
c) Another sample: the author of this article suggests that the application reveals all Facebook data in itself based on your user experience, while the app definitely does not do this (no data is stored within the app).
CoM: Does i-Free have any regrets about the way in which Girls Around Me was designed or marketed? Anything you’d do differently, knowing now the kind of controversy it would stir up?
Vishnyakov: When we launched the app we launched it as a test case. We did not consider this version to be a final release and functionality, and I explained before the reasons why this functionality was put in the first place. The app was not promoted we aimed to gather feedback from the users and address the issues if necessary. I repeat, and this is an important message – no user since the app’s launch has ever addressed to us with the claims that have risen recently. In a way, now we’ve got the negative feedback that the users did not give us in these months. Although we disagree with some of the views presented through the recent coverage, we are thankful for every feedback, objective and subjective, positive and negative, true or erroneous – there are important lessons to be learned from every message.
CoM: Will Girls Around Me return? If so, how do you intend to address privacy concerns?
Vishnyakov: The app will not return as it is now. We need to resolve the issue with API access, and we need to adjust the application after going through all the feedback we’ve got.
We still believe that geo-social discovery is the future of mobile web and applications, that sharing interests, finding new people or cool venues is a good thing.
For example, i-Free attempts to say that Girls Around Me shouldn’t be criticized because it was put out into the App Store market “to gather feedback.” As proof, he claims that i-Free did nothing to promote the app during this effective “beta” status… but the way in which I discovered Girls Around Me was because I was e-mailed directly by an i-Free representative who wanted to meet with me at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, specifically to discuss (and encourage me to write about) this and other i-Free apps. And even if the app wasn’t promoted and was just a beta, it’s hard to see how that pardons i-Free from all responsibility for what the app could be used for in the wrong hands.
i-Free also tries to claim that Girls Around Me was primarily intended as a social discovery app, not to track women specifically. This claim is belied by almost every aspect of the app itself, from the splash screen showing silhouettes of disrobed women geolocated on a map, to the app’s default setting to locate women, to Girls Around Me’s own website, which pointedly says that the app is for people “after a one-night stand” who want to “browse photos of lovely local ladies and tap their thumbnail to find out more about them.”
Finally, while i-Free goes to lengths to quibble about particulars like where data like the photographs and other personal information about the girls the app tracks comes from, or whether you can “track” one specific woman using it, they don’t once seriously address the concerns of those who feel that what the app does is creepy, dangerous, misogynist, exploitive… and a very unethical violation of privacy.
As for whether or not it’s somehow makes i-Free look better if Girls Around Me is mainly meant to help guys avoid venues filled with “ugly” women, well, the less said about that, the better. I don’t believe that i-Free ever meant for Girls Around Me to upset so many people, but if they didn’t, it’s just this sort of insensitivity and oblivious superficiality that got them in hot water in the first place. Wise up, guys.
That said, the issues at stake here are the same they always were. The guys at i-Free may very well be insensitive clods who released a truly misguided app that treated women like pieces of meat, but even so, their app could never have worked without social networks and check-in services like Facebook and Foursquare exposing their users to begin with. These companies make their money based upon sharing their user’s data, and they have a vested interest in obscuring privacy settings from the end-user so that they inadvertently share as much information about themselves as possible. It’s ultimately they who are responsible for apps like Girls Around Me, and it’s up to them to educate their users about how exposed social networks can be. Until Facebook and Foursquare start holding themselves responsible for their users’ safety, nothing is going to change.
To stop apps like Girls Around Me from tracking you without your knowledge using Foursquare and Facebook, read our privacy guide here.