A smartphone app that used data collected by the popular app FourSquare came under fire recently for creepily helping users find the location of unsuspecting women. Although FourSquare blocked the "Girls Around Me" app from using its data citing violated policies, reports are that the app's developers are saying they did nothing wrong.
PC World reports FourSquare blocked the Girls Around Me app's use of its API on Friday, which resulted in its Russian developer pulling it from the Apple app store. The app provided data from Facebook profiles on women when they checked into bars on FourSquare.
Cult of Mac's John Brownlee, who originally launched awareness over this controversial app last week, called it "a wake-up call about privacy." Here's Brownlee's explanation about how the app worked:
Girls Around Me is a standard geolocation based maps app, similar to any other app that attempts to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity: whether it be parties, clubs, deals, or what have you. When you load it up, the first thing Girls Around Me does is figure out where you are and load up a Google Map centered around your location. The rest of the interface is very simple: in the top left corner, there’s a button that looks like a radar display, at the right corner, there’s a fuel meter (used to fund the app’s freemium model), and on the bottom left is a button that allows you to specify between whether you’re interested in women, men or both.
It’s when you push the radar button that Girls Around Me does what it says on the tin. I pressed the button for my friends. Immediately, Girls Around Me went into radar mode, and after just a few seconds, the map around us was filled with pictures of girls who were in the neighborhood. Since I was showing off the app on a Saturday night, there were dozens of girls out on the town in our local area.
“So let’s say I’m a bro, looking to go out for a night on the town and pick someone up. Let’s say I’m going to the Independent around the corner, and checking it out ahead of time, I really like the look of this girl Zoe — she looks like a girl I might want to try to get with tonight — so I tap her picture for more information, see what I can find out about here.”
Brownlee then went on in the post to describe to his friends details about the girls he located with the app. This information came from publicly visible Facebook profiles. What Brownlee and other online privacy experts are saying is that even though this app may be a mute point since it no longer exists -- for now -- it is yet another example of what poor security settings on social networks can reveal about you. PC World has more:
John M. Simpson, the director of Consumer Watchdog's privacy project, said even if people understand what data they're sharing on social networks, they don't expect it to be "reconfigured so they can be hit upon."
"Many, many people have no idea the amount of information that they're sharing on Facebook," Simpson said. He faulted the social network's default privacy settings. "People sometimes go on and never realize the extent to which things can be seen. I think that's a worrisome thing. I think default settings are tremendously important."
Brownlee authored several other posts to talk about privacy issues online after his original exposé. One of them focused on how quickly this app was squashed and why. Brownlee points out that FourSquare said Girls Around Me violated its API in that it "aggregated information across venues." To Brownlee, this means that it wasn't in violation because it tracked women without their consent, but because it should only show women at one venue at a time. Brownlee writes:
But is that really any better? It still allows creeps — whether potential stalkers, rapists or just pick-up artists and ballers — to research women who probably don’t even know they are exposed as potential “targets.” The only difference is, they’ve got to have a venue in mind, not just a neighborhood [...]
So, is there a larger reason as to why this app was really killed? Brownlee thinks so, and it's because it got people talking and thinking about privacy. He writes that Facebook and FourSquare are in the business of keeping "privacy matters murky and dark" in order to encourage users to divulge information.
Shortly after Cult of Mac's piece was published, i-Free Innovations -- developer of Girls Around Me -- sent a statement to the Wall Street Journal saying it had been the "unethical [...] scapegoat to talk about privacy concerns." Here's a snippet of their lengthy response:
Since the app's launch[,which was several months ago,] till last Friday nobody ever raised a privacy concern because, again, it is clearly stated that Girls Around Me cannot show the user more data than social network already does.
We see this wave of negative as a serious misunderstanding of the apps’ goals, purpose, abilities and restrictions. Girls Around Me does not provide any data that is unavailable to user when he uses his or her social network account, nor does it reveal any data that users did not share with others. The app was intended for facilitating discovering of great public venues nearby. The app was designed to make it easier for a user to step out of door and hang out in the city, find people with common interests and new places to go to.
It may be worth pointing out the app's website once said "In the mood for love, or just a one-night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control!" i-Free Innovations has said it is reviewing comments and will work to develop a similar app that appropriately meets social network policies.
In response to Brownlee's original article, Cult of Mac has release a "how-to" guide for those who are creeped out and wish to better secure their privacy on Facebook and FourSquare. Check out the guide here.