A Privacy Win

Transparency is everything in the world of ones and zeros where data can be collected and used in hidden ways for not-always-helpful purposes. Sometimes revealing what an app is actually capable of doing – is doing – with your data results in a happy ending.

girls around me screen capture
Girls Around Me screen capture

The story starts with Cult of Mac revealing the truth about an app in This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy. The app is called Girls Around Me. You should read the full story for yourself, it has several screen captures of interest. I’ll give you a highly abridged version. Girls Around Me gives you a map showing where girls are nearby. These are women who checked into locations using Foursquare. Based on that, the app shows their Facebook profile image, tells private details about likes, friends names, jobs and more. The story concluced with tips about how to manage privacy settings.

Creepy is right.

The Cult of Mac story was so creepy that it garnered a lot of public attention. That’s where the good part of the story begins, a turn of events that we can thank Cult of Mac for igniting. (Or, more precisely, we should thank the girlfiend of the writer John Brownlee at Cult of Mac for insisting he write about Girls Around Me.)

Tech Crunch publicized the story in “Girls Around Me” Creeper App Just Might Get People To Pay Attention To Privacy Settings. The story at TechCruch focused on the privacy settings issue, but ended with a short but important update:

Foursquare has reached out to say that the app was in violation of their API policy, so they’ve revoked access. I feel safer already!

Kudos to Foursquare, right?

But that isn’t the end of the story. The Sydney Morning Herald in ‘Stalker’ app pulled after ‘tool for rapists’ outcry, tells us,

An iPhone app that in effect allowed users to stalk women nearby using location-based social networking service Foursquare has been pulled from the iTunes app store by its developer after an outcry.

According to The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Girls Around Me’ Developer Defends App After Foursquare Dismissal, the app is useless without Foursquare integration, which is why it was pulled from the app store. The creators of the app, a Russian company called i-Free Innovations defended the app to the WSJ, calling it,

. . . “unethical to pick a scapegoat to talk about the privacy concerns. We see this wave of negative as a serious misunderstanding of the apps’ goals, purpose, abilities and restrictions.”

You can read the I-Free developers’ full statement in The Wall Street Journal’s story. Even though Girls Around Me is no longer available in the app store, it had already been downloaded 70,000 times. Those versions should not work now because Foursquare cut off access.

We Won One

Privacy for women won this one. Yea.

Yet we still have to struggle weekly with protecting our privacy online, with changing settings in Facebook and in apps, with constant vigilance to protect our vulnerability.

One victory isn’t enough. How can we use the momentum of this victory to create changes that will be more useful and long lasting?

Note: This story is cross-posted at BlogHer.

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