This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Cal
This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy [Update] | Cult of Mac
“Boy, you sure have a lot of apps on your phone.”
“Well, it’s my job.”
“What’s your favorite?”
“Oh, I couldn’t choose. But hey, want to see one to set your skin crawling?”
It was the flush end of a pleasurably hot day — 85 degrees in March — and we were all sipping bitter cocktails out in my friend’s backyard, which was both his smoking room, beer garden, viticetum, opossum parlor and barbecue pit. I was enjoying the warm dusk with a group of six of my best friends, all of whom seemed interested, except for my girlfriend… who immediately grimaced.
“Girls Around Me? Again?” she scolded. “Don’t show them that.”
She turned to our friends, apologetically.
“He’s become obsessed with this app. It’s creepy.”
I sputtered, I nevered, and I denied it, but it was true. I had become obsessed with Girls Around Me, an app that perfectly distills many of the most worrying issues related to social networking, privacy and the rise of the smartphone into a perfect case study that anyone can understand.
It’s an app that can be interpreted many ways. It is as innocent as it is insidious; it is just as likely to be reacted to with laughter as it is with tears; it is as much of a novelty as it has the potential to be used a tool for rapists and stalkers.
And more than anything, it’s a wake-up call about privacy.
The only way to really explain Girls Around Me to people is to load it up and show them how it works, so I did. I placed my iPhone on the table in front of everyone, and opened the app.
The splash screen elicited laughter all around. It’s such a bitmap paean to the tackiest and most self-parodying of baller “culture”; it might as well be an app Tom Haverford slapped together in Parks And Recreation. But it does, at a glance, sum up what Girls Around Me is all about: a radar overlaid on top of a Google Map, out of which throbs numerous holographic women posing like pole dancers in a perpetual state of undress.
“Okay, so here’s the way the app works,” I explained to my friends.
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.
“How does it know where these girls are? Do you know all these girls? Is it plucking data from your address book or something?” another friend asked.
“Not at all. These are all girls with publicly visible Facebook profiles who have checked into these locations recently using Foursquare. Girls Around Me then shows you a map where all the girls in your area trackable by Foursquare area. If there’s more than one girl at a location, you see the number of girls there in a red bubble. Click on that, and you can see pictures of all the girls who are at that location at any given time. The pictures you are seeing are their social network profile pictures.”
“Okay, so they know that their data can be used like this for anyone to see? They’re okay with it? ”
“Probably not, actually. The settings determining how visible your Facebook and Foursquare data is are complicated, and tend to be meaningless to people who don’t really understand issues about privacy,” I explained. “Most privacy settings on social networks default to share everything with everyone, and since most people never change those… well, they end up getting sucked up into apps like this.”
“But they know they’ve checked in, right?”
“Again, not necessarily. Foursquare lets you check other people into a location. If you get checked into Foursquare by a friend without your knowledge and have a publicly visible Facebook profile, you could end up in here.” (Update: Apparently, I wasn’t correct about this. Foursquare does NOT allow you to check other people in with you without their knowledge; I was confusing Foursquare for Facebook, which does offer this functionality. Thanks for the correction, unknown8bit! – JRB)
One of my less computer-affable friends actually went pale, and kept on shooting her boyfriend looks for assurance. A Linux aficionado who was the only person in our group without a Facebook account (and one of the few people I’d ever met who actually endorsed Diaspora), the look he returned was one of comical smugness.
“But wait! It gets worse!” I said, ramping things up.
“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.”
I tapped on Zoe. Girls Around Me quickly loaded up a fullscreen render of her Facebook profile picture. The app then told me where Zoe had last been seen (The Independent) and when (15 minutes ago). A big green button at the bottom reading “Photos & Messaging” just begged to be tapped, and when I did, I was whisked away to Zoe’s Facebook profile.
“Okay, so here’s Zoe. Most of her information is visible, so I now know her full name. I can see at a glance that she’s single, that she is 24, that she went to Stoneham High School and Bunker Hill Community College, that she likes to travel, that her favorite book is Gone With The Wind and her favorite musician is Tori Amos, and that she’s a liberal. I can see the names of her family and friends. I can see her birthday.”
“All of that is visible on Facebook?” one of the other girls in our group asked.
“More, depending on how your privacy settings are configured! For example, I can also look at Zoe’s pictures.”
I tapped on the photo album, and a collection of hundreds of publicly visible photos loaded up. I quickly browsed them.
“Okay, so it looks like Zoe is my kind of girl. From her photo albums, I can see that she likes to party, and given the number of guys she takes photos with at bars and clubs at night, I can deduce that she’s frisky when she’s drunk, and her favorite drink is a frosty margarita. She appears to have recently been in Rome. Also, since her photo album contains pictures she took at the beach, I now know what Zoe looks like in a bikini… which, as it happens, is pretty damn good.”
My girlfriend scowled at me. I assured her Zoe in a bikini was no comparison, and moved on.
“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. 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.”
This is creepy beyond belief, but a demonstration of what modern technology can do.
One of the reasons why Facebook (and similar "social networking" technology) need to not only include realistic capabilities to protect people's privacy, but they need to educate on the results of their settings.
"Try to become not a man of success, but try rather to become a man of value."