Mobile privacy: ‘Girls Around Me’ just 1 bad app(le)

By Anne Collier

The “Girls Around Me” app is no longer available in its current form, but it’s still an apt illustration of how key each social media user is to his or her own privacy or lack thereof. The app, developed in Russia and sleazily promoted on the developer’s Web page, provided people who downloaded it with the identities, photos, and physical locations of women near them, using the information the women had made public with Foursquare “check-ins,” according to the Wall Street Journal. And a lot of Foursquare users connect their Foursquare accounts with Facebook and Twitter, so their Facebook photos and other info could be associated with their check-in announcements in the “Girls” app and announced on Twitter. It was just repurposing information publicly available. “As far as I can tell, the app … wasn’t violating any laws. But it was high on the creepy scale,” wrote my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid, because the women who appeared in this mashup app “never opted into the service.” So Foursquare cut off the app’s access to its service, but of course that happened after tens of thousands of users had downloaded it, and it was probably the app’s title and sleazy marketing that caused it to rise to high visibility quickly in app stores (it’s no longer available in Apple’s, reportedly) and the news media.

Research on teen ‘geotagging’ needed!

I am aware of zero research on how many minors actually use check-in services like Foursquare (in testifying on Capitol Hill a couple of years ago, I called for more such research), but I’ve seen no indication that they’re particularly popular with teens. So I don’t think the “Girls” app itself was much of a threat to their safety. It’s the principle that’s key, here. But before I get to that I should also say that it appears that, for now, check-ins for the sake of checking in seems to be losing cachet and the number of companies going down (e.g., Gowalla was acquired by Facebook and loopt by Green Dot, a prepaid debit card provider). This type of service seems so far to have had more appeal among adults who are spontaneously mobile – either they drive cars or they’re urban adults and can move around freely on public transportation without needing someone’s, like Mom or Dad’s, permission.

There is fresh data, though, on the use of geotagging in Facebook (by users in general, not teens, specifically), which appears to be on the rise. “One in four Facebook users add their location to a combined total of 2 billion posts each month,” reports. And reports that “there are 200 million monthly active users creating 2 billion actions tagged with location on Facebook” – which says translates to each user adding location to a post or photo about 10 times a month, on average. Though Facebook use is getting more mobile with rapid FB uptake around the world, this kind of tagging seems as much about associating a photo or tune with a location as associating oneself with a location. But talk with your kids about this, because FB users will be able to “indicate where they are going to be in the future so that others can join them.” They’ll want to be sure that only their actual offline friends – not all FB friends – know where they plan to go ahead of time so that they have control over who can join them at that location!

Managing privacy together

What’s important in the “Girls Around Me” story for parents and kids to consider together is that an app was using people’s publicly available information without their knowledge, and this is not the last time that will happen, with hundreds of thousands of mobile apps available for the downloading and more being created all the time (see this). Here in the US, the FTC is trying to foster good practices in that fairly new business ecosystem, and I imagine privacy regulators in many countries are working on this too, but regulators can do little to prevent privacy violations all by themselves. They can only be reactive. The same goes for the businesses like Foursquare from whose services apps like this draw energy and users.

This is a challenging, unavoidable, but far from impossible set of conditions for users, parents, and caregivers. In a user-driven media environment where everyday life’s updates and communications are posted and sent in real time, 24/7, by users in every country on the planet, by definition, we are each part of the solution. We need to understand this, and we need to help each other post and act on this understanding. Privacy takes a village too, now (a village that includes providers, developers, platforms, and regulators as well as users and their friends and families).

The great news is, young people respond intelligently to solid information. Research shows that teens are smarter about using privacy settings than their parents are (see this). But the occasional reminder, such as this story about a sleazy app or some good research data, never hurts. And it also helps if we can model good privacy practices for our children – at least look into what’s involved with them. It’s important that all of us social media users are talking about these issues so that we can call out anti-social media practices when we see them. That’s healthy civic engagement for our kids and part of this process that all who use social media, bar none, are engaged in, consciously or not: creating the social norms of social media.

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* Sharing the “news” you read: In another example (as relevant to adults as teens), consider how Facebook users can embarrass themselves by, in their newsfeeds, unconsciously sharing the titillating tabloid news stories they go to out of curiosity – via “news-sharing” apps in Facebook and other sites. “The Ethics of Social News Apps” in Columbia Journalism Review reports that “one of the most popular social news apps [“Social Reader”] is run by the Washington Post, which is very proud of its success. It has indeed gone viral—and not all in the good sense.” Read what CJR means by that.

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