Gotta love those stories that you come across late in the day, and then by the time you get a moment to report on them, they’ve already sort of solved themselves. For about two months now, an app called Girls Around Me has be available on Apple’s App Store, and, for what it’s worth, it’s not that it’s explicitly intended to make it easy to pretend that you know a girl, or find a girl who may be susceptible to drunkenly going home with you…
Well, actually I take it back, it’s explicitly intended to do both of those things. As Cult of Mac expertly summarizes it: “Girls Around Me lets you identify women, find out where they are, look at pictures of them and then research their personal lives, all in pursuit of a ‘one-night stand.’” Its creators wanted to make the lives of “ballers and pick-up artists” easier, which, while not my cup of tea, doesn’t remove the fact that they’re also giving would-be stalkers and date-rapists a incredible convenience.
What Girls Around Me did, before Foursquare canned the app’s ability to use its data, was cross-reference the public Foursquare and Facebook profiles of women in the immediate vicinity of the user’s smartphone. If a woman who has recently checked in nearby using a Foursquare account without privacy controls enabled also has a Facebook profile without privacy controls enabled, the app connects the user to photos, personal information, and user history. As John Brownlee described the app to friends in his original post (which appears to have been the post that brought the app’s existence to the wider attention of the internet, Foursquare, Facebook, and possibly Apple):
So now I know everything to know about Zoe. I know where she is. I know what she looks like, both clothed and mostly disrobed [from her beach-side pictures]. I know her full name, her parents’ full names, her brother’s full name. I know what she likes to drink. I know where she went to school. I know what she likes and dislikes. All I need to do now is go down to the Independent, ask her if she remembers me from Stoneham High, ask her how her brother Mike is doing, buy her a frosty margarita, and start waxing eloquently about that beautiful summer I spent in Roma [since she recently vacationed there].
As Brownlee nails in his post about the app: GAM wasn’t actually tapping into any information that isn’t already public, just presenting it in a different way. And it wouldn’t even be doing any thing ethically or morally wrong… if we lived in a world where every user of Facebook and Foursquare was 100% and totally familiar and aware of when their information might be used, by whom, and for what. But we don’t live in a world like that, do we? And that’s the point: we live in a world where privacy settings are complicated, obtuse, sometimes difficult to find, frequently changed, and often ignored by a society not yet used to the impact of technology on privacy and the changing ideas of how open one should be on our brand new instantaneous communication network.
It’s safe to say that all of the women that you could find on Girls Around Me had given permission for their data to be used in such a way. Whether or not they, or the companies that handled that data were aware that they had given GAM permission to use it in that way also seems like a moot point: they didn’t. Girls Around Me was able to exist for at least a few months before it came to the attention of Foursquare (who blocked GAM’s access to its API for violations of its rules, effectively breaking it), Facebook (who issued an explanation of how users could set their security settings so as to keep their data from being used in such a way), and certainly Apple (it remains to be seen whether Apple is even aware of the app now, since it has not yet acknowledged its existence). Brownlee even admits that he used the app as a quick and devastatingly effective way to demonstrate how vulnerable your online information might be if you don’t take care of it for two whole months before he finally figured out what to say about it and wrote his post. (Perhaps a brief missive talking about the app’s existence, even if it missed the bigger picture, might have been good?)
A day after his post went up (it’s definitely worth a read), the app was yanked by its own developers from the Apple Store since Foursquare denied its access effectively and permanently broke it. A day after that, its makers released a statement that, naturally, maintains that they’ve done nothing wrong, with arguments both of the type that hold a bit of water (all these ladies legally opted in anyway so what’s the problem) and the type that don’t (using the app is no different than looking into the window of a bar).
If you’re now feeling a little paranoid about your Facebook privacy settings, Cult of Mac recommends this Mashable article, and so do we.
(story and pic via Cult of Mac.)