Controversial ‘Girl-Finding’ App Raises Privacy Concerns

By Carlton Purvis

An increasing number of people are taking steps to protect personal information on social media profiles, according to results of a Pew Research Center study published in February. More than 50 percent of respondents keep their social media profiles completely hidden from the public.

This may be a good thing considering a recent row between Foursquare and a mobile app developer showing the need for clearer explanations on who's doing what with data, and what data is being transmitted by social networking sites.

The controversial app, Girls Around Me has been pulled from the Apple Store amid protests by privacy advocates and the location-based social networking site Foursquare. Critics, however, say the problem isn’t Girls Around Me, but the amount of information social media sites share about its users by default.

Girls Around Me is an app that uses Foursquare’s API to map people nearby, both men and women, and populates their profile with publicly available Facebook data. According to the Web site Cult of Mac, Girls Around Me “allowed users to stalk women in the neighborhood without those women’s knowledge, right down to their most personal details…a dangerous weapon in the hands of stalkers and serial rapists.”

Foursquare responded by blocking the app from using its data on Friday. The app developer, i-Free Innovations, removed it from the Apple Store on Saturday and released a statement saying critics have their intentions all wrong.

“The app was designed to make it easier for a user to step out of doors and hang out in the city, find people with common interests and new places to go to,” it said. “It is impossible to search for a particular person in this app, or track his/her location. The app just allows the user to browse the venues nearby, as if you passed by and looked in the window.” The company notes that to use the app a person must be logged into Foursquare themselves.

The app also only uses social networking information that has been made available to by Foursquare users. “Since the apps launch till last Friday nobody ever raised a privacy concern because, again, it is clearly stated that Girls Around Me cannot show the user more data than social network already does,” the company said. i-Free says it has been targeted as a scapegoat to talk about privacy and that the app was removed from the Apple Store because without access to the Foursquare API, users just get an error message when trying to use it.

Some suspect Foursquare’s reason for protesting the app is more about profit than about privacy. Cult of Mac's John Brownlee says the app brings up privacy issues that could lead to users sharing less information online. All of Foursquare’s privacy options are opt-out, so by default, a user is sharing their name, sex, and last location to other apps using its API. And for Foursquare, he says, the less people who share their information publicly, the less its revenue stream.

After contacting Foursquare to clarify its reason for blocking Girls Around Me, Cult of Mac says it really wasn't about privacy at all. The app was blocked “not because it allowed you to track women without their knowledge or consent. It was killed because it allowed you to track women without their knowledge or consent at more than one venue at a time,” Brownlee wrote.

photo by russelljsmith/flickr


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