John Brownlee started a bit of storm on March 30 when he posted a story about Girls Around Me, an app for the iPhone. The idea behind the app is relatively simple - you turn it on, it finds your current location, and then it locates all of the people (men or women) who are currently nearby. The information is taken from public Facebook profiles and Foursquare check-ins. Brownlee tells a great story about the reaction of friends to whom he showed the app; they gradually move from fascination to a tingly ickiness and finally outright worry.
All of the data is public, there’s nothing illegal about what the app is doing. In fact a lot of the fear and reactions come from the ridiculous splash screen, which can be seen at the link above, of “girls” in stripper profile pictures. The more Brownlee thinks about the app the more he realizes that it demonstrates the truly worrying things about privacy on social networks like Facebook and Foursquare. We are, mostly by default, sharing much more than we might like to think when we use these services. I don’t think we should ban them, but we do need to use them with much more caution and consideration.
Charlie Stross noted the story and summarized my feelings quite well:
In the worst case, it’s possible to envisage geolocation and data aggregation apps being designed to facilitate the identification and elimination of some ethnic or class enemy, not only by making it easy for users to track them down, but by making it easy for users to identify each other and form ad-hoc lynch mobs. (Hence my reference to the Rwandan Genocide earlier. Think it couldn’t happen? Look at Iran and imagine an app written for the Basij to make it easy to identify dissidents and form ad-hoc goon squads to proactively hunt them down. Or any other organization in the post-networked world that has a social role corresponding to the Red Guards.)
But as I said earlier, the app is not the problem. The problem is the deployment by profit-oriented corporations of behavioural psychology techniques to induce people to over-share information which can then be aggregated and disclosed to third parties for targeted marketing purposes.