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Girls Around Me: An issue of privacy and trust

April 5, 2012

Gary Schwartz is president/CEO of Impact Mobile

By Gary Schwartz

Why the shock and awe of a mobile application that helps guys find girls around them – an app which uses publicly available data from Facebook and foursquare’s APIs, data which is completely permission-based?

Well, the “GirlsAround.Me” app, understandably, riled the press. The Cult of Mac blog’s headline reads: “This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy”. CNET’s op-ed reads: “Girls Around Me and the end of Internet innocence.”

However, the “Girls Around Me” app is simply another in a long list of controversial services that use information that is floating about the digital commons.

The Russian company, i-Free, that developed the app cannot understand the kerfuffle, claiming that it has been used as a “scapegoat” for the privacy debates whirling about Washington. Honestly, it has every right to be confused.

The industry itself is confused and responding to privacy in reactive knee jerks instead of thoughtful best practices.

The problem is the complexity and sensitivity of social data. Combining location check-in with social graph is a potent privacy cocktail.
We act surprised every time the privacy issue hits the tabloid press.

Remember, the Dutch Web site We had exactly the same social-eyebrow-raising using the same public information to identify whether someone was home or not based on social networking status updates.

After headlining articles in Mashable through to Slashdot, the site rebranded itself as a benevolent attempt at “Raising awareness about over-sharing.” The site now explains that:

“Services like foursquare allow you to fulfill some primeval urge to colonize the planet . . . A part of that is letting everyone know you own that specific spot. The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not… home.”

But location apps continue to be app-de-jour.

At SXSW, the annual music and interactive festival in Austin, TX, the Highlight app was downloaded by every Austin groupie to actively find connections in the crowds.

Highlight required that users share their Facebook social graph and expose their phone’s location. Highlight uses this date to connect you to folk with shared interest.

However, if you do not manually pause the app, it continues to share and share long after you return from Austin.

What would Al Franken do?
What should Al Franken, former comedian and Democratic senator from Minnesota, and the nice folk at the Federal Communications Commission be doing to help proactively in the face of these privacy headlines?

Do we tackle the issue by strong-arming folk such as Apple to rejecting apps that need to access the consumer Unique Device Identifier (UDID), or are there simpler ways of addressing privacy?

Well, here are two examples of services and ways the industry could and should have acted proactively:

1. Path: Only a few months ago photography app “Path” had to mea culpa to users after scrapping their users phone contacts – after this privacy faux pas was uncovered by blogger Arun Thampi.

Path explained belatedly that it was only using the data to improve the quality of its friend suggestions. Most users may have happily opted in to this value-added service if the company had made the contact-sharing permission-based and explained the benefit.

2. CarrierIQ: Do you recall waking up to CNN showing the “hoodwinked public” that their phone in their pocket had been “hijacked” by CarrierIQ?

The app was following every keystroke, every media selection, every location. We imaged our secret SMS and photos on primetime news.

Could the wireless carriers leveraging Carrier IQ have done a better job explaining that this data was for benign diagnostic use in debugging the phone? The service benefited the consumer.

As I discussed in my book, “The Impulse Economy,” mobile misdemeanors simply get more press.

The phone is more personal and, therefore, under more scrutiny.

The mobile phone houses family photos, girlfriend’s SMS messages, business notes and, now, even a commerce wallet.

Location and social graph information can be a boon to your nightlife, but can flip dramatically to Orwellian Big Brother.

What we need it a simple way of explaining privacy to the public consumer. How do we move from pages of legalize on the small screen with a coy “accept” button?

Transparency, please
The industry needs to work together to offer consumer tools that allow for transparency.

TRUSTe’s survey is telling. Thirty-eight per cent of respondents identified privacy as their No. 1 concern when using mobile apps.

But, more importantly, 98 per cent of respondents want more transparency and choice over the personal information that mobile apps collect and share, especially as it relates to targeted advertising and geo-location data.

The “Cult of Mac” blog calls “Girls Around Me” a “wake-up call about privacy,” but we seem to wake up and fall asleep in quick succession. It is time to be more proactive and less reactive.

Gary Schwartz is president/CEO of Impact Mobile, Toronto, and author of “The Impulse Economy” (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Reach him at

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