Recently, an iPhone app caused an uproar like none other. Many people labeled the program, Girls Around Me, as a stalker's tool, since it allowed anyone to see exactly — on a map — where nearby women were located at that moment, as well as information about them including their names, photos, hobbies and relationship status.
What spy tech did the app use? Social networks such as Facebook and the location-sharing service foursquare, services that the women willingly shared their information with and that the sites subsequently published. (Girls Around Me then assembled the sites' individual information into a streamlined form, making the women easy to track.) So the question arises: Can you violate someone's privacy using only the information that they already gave up?
The issue isn't the individual bits of data, but whether someone uses the data in ways you couldn't have foreseen, said David Jacobs, a fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (known as EPIC). "When you combine them and you do it in a way that makes it readily available to someone in a convenient way on a map, the whole may be more than the sum of its parts," he said. "The fact that something is publically available doesn't mean that there isn't a privacy interest in it." (For Girls Around Me to have gained the Facebook information, the women would have to have chosen the option of linking their Facebook and foursquare accounts.)
Perhaps no industry is more involved in the location-tracking issue than online dating services, which are all going mobile. Hot upstart HowAboutWe, for example, introduced an app last year that allows members to see if potential matches are nearby and to propose a spontaneous date on the spot. Another company, MeetMoi, is exclusively a mobile service. "It's not about sitting at a computer in your bedroom and browsing personals," said CEO Alex Harrington. "What we do is, we make introductions." That's in real-life and real-time, with the aid of an app.
Both Harrington and HowAboutWe's co-CEO, Aaron Schildkrout, say that privacy has not been a worry for female members. HowAboutWe has equal numbers of men and women mobile users, "like our website," said Schildkrout in an email. At MeetMoi, said Harrington, men are in the "60s percent" on the mobile app. He's expecting more women now, however, since they have added an iPhone app to their original Android version.
One difference between Girls Around Me and MeetMoi, for example, is whether people choose to use the app. In the case of Girls Around Me, the women probably didn't even know the app existed. They weren't providing info to that app, but to foursquare, from which Girls Around Me obtained their location. "I think that a lot of times, if they had been asked to opt in to have their info used on Girls Around Me, a lot of them would probably say no," said EPIC's Jacobs, in what may be an understatement.
The controversy puts foursquare in a difficult spot. The service makes its location data available for other companies to slurp up automatically, in real-time. And many of them, such as introduction app Sonar (which goes beyond dating to all kinds of introductions), are built on this data source. But foursquare said that Girls Around Me used the data in a way that is not permitted. "We have a policy against aggregating information across venues using information from our service, to prevent situations like this where someone would present an inappropriate overview of a series of locations," said a company spokesperson, who asked not to be named, in an email.
In the case of foursquare, people register their location so friends can see where they are and perhaps meet up. In turn, they can find their friends, get tips on venues ("order the blackberry Cosmo"), and see what venues are "hot" based on the number of check-ins. On services like MeetMoi, people provide information in the hope of attracting a potential date.
They know what they are getting into, or at least think they do. But as Girls Around Me shows, they may get into a lot more than they ever expected.