Last week's tussle over the now-defunct iPhone app Girls Around Me implied that tracking single women was some new privacy-threatening practice.
In fact, it's been around since 2009, the early days of foursquare — the location-based "check-in" service providing the data that Girls Around Me once used. And foursquare promoted the first service, Assisted Serendipity, as an exemplary use of its tech, said Lenny Rachitsky, the creator.
The process is simple — there isn't even an app. You sign up on the website, enter your phone number, specify if you are looking for "girls" or "guys," and register your favorite venues. The service monitors foursquare check-ins, and if the gender ratio is in your favor (more girls than guys, or vice-versa), you get a text message.
You can find men or women anytime using the website — available on a computer or any smartphone. Testing it on Sunday, I found a woman at the New York City bar Professor Thom's named Mandy who had linked foursquare to her Facebook page. There I found her last name, hometown, work history, list of 466 friends and about a dozen photos — everything she chose to share publicly on Facebook, and everything that Girls Around Me would have revealed.
Isn't Assisted Serendipity the same idea as Girls Around Me? "Yeah, in a sense," said Lenny Rachitsky. "One difference is, you can't just say 'everywhere in the city, tell me where the girls are.'" It's based on just the venues that you choose, he explained. And the women (or men) don't appear on a map, which many people found especially unsettling. "It doesn’t make you feel like you're God, where you can see all these girls," he said.
"I never got feedback from people that it was too creepy and I had to shut it down," Rachitsky added. That includes foursquare, which makes its location data open to other apps and services. "Foursquare was supportive of Assisted Serendipity," he said, explaining that the company had named Assisted Serendipity at conferences when giving examples of how foursquare's data could be used. (We contacted foursquare's PR department but didn't hear back by press time.)
Assisted Serendipity emerged in late 2009, the early days of location-based services, when only early adopters used them. And Rachitsky never promoted Assisted Serendipity beyond word of mouth. It was simply "an experiment" to see what was possible. (He keeps it running but hasn't added any new features.) Rachitsky is now CEO of localmind, an app and service that allows you to ask questions of people who register as experts about any location, such as a café, bar or even a business office.
Rachitsky says he understands why Girls Around Me caused concern, and he feels that making data public should not imply blanket consent to do anything with it. "I give permission to use my data, but also not to [use it] in a way that I didn't expect," he said.
However, he also thinks the concerns about Girls Around Me are overblown. "People are going to jump to the most irrational conclusions," he said. And he worries that the hype will cause foursquare to cut back access to its location data, made available through a tool called an API, which would hamper new location-based apps. "As a developer, I'm a little concerned that they are going to change their API," he said. "The foursquare API has been one of the best APIs to work with."
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