‘Girls Around Me’ Dev: Our App’s Not For Stalking Women, It’s For Avoiding The Ugly Ones [Exclusive Interview]


Cult of Mac interviews Girls Around Me developer i-Free about the controversy surrounding their app.
Cult of Mac interviews Girls Around Me developer i-Free about the controversy surrounding their app.

Last week, we stirred up a maelstrom of controversy when we posted about Girls Around Me, an iOS app that allowed you to locate and view publicly available information on women in any area.

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.

* * * * *
Cult of Mac: In your company’s previous statement, you said that you felt that Girls Around Me’s goals and purpose had been misinterpreted. What are the goals and purpose of Girls Around Me? What is the app meant to be used for?

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.

* * * * *
We’d like to thank i-Free and Vlad for conducting an interview with us, but frankly, we find these responses to alternate between disingenuous, quibbling or downright revisionist.

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.

  • Craig Ciccone

    for the love of god, stop patting yourself on the back.

  • Seryph

    Totally agree with Craig. We get that you feel very strongly about this, and you think you’re doing some fantastic investigative journalism, and in many ways this is true. However, the fact that you start your report with statistics about how many website hits this has got you, and how many other people have reported on this because of your article is ridiculous.

    Secondly, what would Vlad have needed to say to convince you that everything was better? Sure, his answers weren’t all that great, but I knew as soon as I started reading this report that your thoughts at the bottom of the page were never going to flatter the developer. I wonder what he could possibly have said to change your opinion? If the answer is ‘nothing’ then there wasn’t much point in conducting the interview.

    I would also point out that while you describe their points as ‘quibbling’, you did actually make factual errors in your original post. This is not good journalism in the first place, but to dismiss the corrections as quibbling is amateurish. Admit you have made a mistake and accept it, don’t make out like the people correcting you are being childish.

    I agree that this app has done some pretty dodgy things, but you are making this into a witch hunt. There are all kinds of truly awful apps on the App Store, and singling out this one just to get hits on your site is silly. They’ve pulled the app. It’s over. Just forget about it and move on.

  • mr_bee

    I find it funny that “Seryph” is taking the author to task for waffling on about himself, when he is posting what (by Internet standards), is a very long self-absorbed comment. :-)

    I like the article and don’t think John is being overly self-promotional. There are a lot of scummy apps in the app store and a lot of dodgy app developers. I think it’s a good thing for people to realise this and to “see behind the curtain” like this once in a while.

    Also, misogyny is a real problem that is endemic and also epidemic in world society at the moment. The fact that these guys aren’t even aware that they are doing something hideously wrong here is amusing and sad at the same time.

  • Albert Frischmann

    Anyway, writing wrong facts is a bad habit, whether you are writing about good or bad guys.
    And, in fact, you can use the app to avoid the pretty girls just looking for the ugly ones. The app makes no preselection on itself.
    And no, I have no connections to i-Free, I am just tired of hypocrisy.

  • Dwalen_Doelloos

    Maybe I’m jaded, but I can’t help but feel like this product isn’t a natural extension of the technology and culture that we’re developing. mr_bee made an interesting statement that “the fact that these guys aren’t even aware that they are doing something hideously wrong here is amusing and sad at the same time”, while true, I can’t say that I’m surprised? If I had seen this app in the app store, I probably would’ve had a mild reaction at best and then moved on. I don’t quite understand the witch hunt involved in a company taking information that has been made public and displaying it in a way that perhaps is just more honest than foursquare to begin with. With the direction our society seems to be going with privacy, I’m almost surprised this product has caused as much excitement as it has. The fundamental question again is how are we choosing to interface with technology, and do we realize the extent to which the information we reveal is available. If I had created an app called people-finder, and allowed people to search the four-square api by different demographic information, would people be as upset? Again, I’m just pointing out that perhaps this organization is in more honestly holding a mirror up to the way technology can and quite possibly is being used in modern society.

  • Richard Bachner

    I’ll be honest – I think that a lot of this criticism of Girls Around Me is unfounded and over the top – and specifically the headline of this article is sensationalizing what Vishnyakov implied about the App in my opinion. The App doesn’t make use of data that people don’t make public. Men naturally gravitate to trying to find women – I’m not sure if there’s something really shocking about this. Media calling it a stalking app makes it a way for them to get more page views…not some objective characterization of this. Maybe some people are shocked at what information is available about them online – but the reality is that peoples’ failures of common sense – people being stupid enough to announce their locations to the entire world so their house can get robbed or any other bad things can happen is something they need to take responsibility for. The vast majority of privacy issues online are caused by people being idiots, not Apps that use public data. Most online privacy issues can be prevented by common sense. Particularly problematic for many people is seeing how they post personal information on social media, neglect to use privacy settings, and are surprised when their personal information is stolen weeks later. While you can be careful about what you post about yourself, you can’t prevent other people from posting about you. Also problematic for people is how there are sites like http://www.dirtyphonebook.com where people post personal information about each that can’t be removed. With Google making all of this information widely available, being vigilant about seeing what people can find out you is critical to maintaining your online reputation. Facebook can do a bit more to prevent people from accidentally messing up their own lives by encouraging more sensible defaults, but in the end people have to be smart about what they post about themselves online, and this doesn’t solve all potential problems. To be honest I see this media response to Girls around me being the most shocking thing of all – this is a very benign complimentary app to 4square, not some massive stalking ring as some articles implied.

  • JoeRossignol

    Are you seriously still going on about this ‘Girls Around Me’ story? Are you trying to ride the increased page views as long as you can? And the way you open the article with stats about how many people have visited the site to read the story is ridiculous… nobody cares and it’s really unprofessional.

  • Thunder Dan

    As you said int he first article on this John, you were amused by it. Then all the girls had their “reactions” and now you are a crusader against this app. Obviously the peer pressure of your girlfriend and the women around you have influenced you to try to be some sort of hero with the position you are in… But let me tell you bro, someday the luster of this role will wear off and trying so hard to please the women in your life will start to earn you disrespect. The real culprit is the privacy settings of Foursquare and Facebook, and people should be aware of that. If you don’t want to be seen, adjust your settings. Pandering to men by putting pictures of women on the app and catering to their wayward fantasies of meeting a woman is just good marketing to their users (as they said MOST of their respondents were MEN). So what’s the headline? Men like women. Did we all not really know that already? Even without this app guys can do the same thing on Foursquare!!! Nothing’s changed!!! except that John Brownlee looks like he’s making a big stand for women… Big hero bro, big hero.

  • Michael Bauser

    Well, since we’re still beating this dead horse, I’ll ask: Has anybody else noticed the weirdness that is Girls Around Me’s new Twitter account? (It’s @GirlsAroundApp.) First, they spent a couple of days posting links to news coverage of themselves, which was odd because it was all negative coverage.

    Since then, they’ve mostly been replying to tweets from creepers asking them for an Android version of the app! (There are apparently people who think the app was blocked at Apple’s request, and that Foursquare will support an Android version.) Girls Around Me’s responses suggest they expect the app to come back, but maybe not based on the Foursquare API.

  • Jared Martin

    My name is Jared Martin and I am writing regarding your comments about the Girl Around Me app. I actually developed this identical app in 2009 called GirlGPS, hired a company called After 10 Studios to develop it for me and change it so it didn’t have that stalker type feel. I have reason to believe that my confidential information was provided to this company because After 10 Studios was outsourcing development work to Russia. The reason I am hoping you are interested in this story is because After 10 Studios ended up being a mutli-state ponzi shceme who ripped off many clients and never delivered their clients apps. I have been working with the FBI and local authorities to address this matter and it now seems like it has escalated into outright theft. Unfortunately, due to amount of money we clients are out, under $1 million dollars, the FBI is not interested in pursuing this matter. I believe this would make for a really fascinating story. I hope your’re willing to speak with me and the many other clients who can shed light into the darker side of app development and the lack of support from our government to involve themselves in matters that aren’t over $10 million. I can provide you with a plethora of documentation to prove this idea was mine, that we planned on changing it to avoid the “stalker app” classification and that our country is not willing to help the average man deliver products that can really make use of smartphone technology.


    Jared Martin

  • Brian Smith

    You’re routinely misinterpreting something the developers are saying about tracking. When they say “this app is incapable of tracking a specific person” what they are referring to is a specific limiting factor against stalking behavior. Stalking is choosing and following a specific target individual, watching what they do and where they go, collecting pictures etc. If you approached this app with the intention of following a specific person, you would not be able to. Specifically, it will not take as input a person’s name or identity or profile, and tell you where they are. You would have to search through every venue and find them manually. If an actual stalker sought to locate a specific person, they would have much better luck going directly to that person’s public social profiles, which is why the app developers say this app does not aid in tracking a specific person.

    It DOES however, help con artists find a ‘mark’ upon which to ply their trade. In this respect the implications of this type of information access are indeed scary. Just be cautious not to perceive the developer’s defense of their intentions as an intent to invalidate your opinion. They are quite definitely not doing that. Finding ways to discredit their defense makes it look like your fight is with this app, but you have several times stated that it is not. Your fight is with default public sharing settings on social networks ,which people feel obligated to be a part of but often do not fully understand. If anything, the presence of apps like this will help force social network corporations to use more limiting defaults and switch to a more opt-in structure, as they could be implicated in having exposed their users’ information to someone who later turns out to be an actual threat, without that person’s consent.

    I’m not saying the app isn’t sleazy as all get-out. It’s downright slimy. But the app itself isn’t your fight, as you’ve said yourself in the original article. If nothing does the exposing, social networks will not learn, and this app is doing the exposing.

  • Michael Bauser

    And now, a crazy-defensive press release from i-Free, saying they’ve “halted funding” for Girls Around Me: http://www.ewdn.com/2012/04/05/i-free-halts-funding-to-the-start-up-that-created-girls-around-me/

  • Matt Fawking-myers

    so, looking for girls to boink is “misogynist”. good to know. anything else qualify as women-hating that i might not know about? brushing your teeth? watching the summer olympics? eating hot cheetos?

  • Matt Fawking-myers

    also, don’t let the fact that the entire thesis of your article, that this is “stalking” software, is not in the least bit accurate unless the stalker in question stalks a new random woman every 30 seconds based solely on her foursquare check-ins, deter you. great job, woodward. the world is now safe from what about 300 other apps already do. remind me to call you up the next time i need to white knight for a chubby bi-polar feminist.

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