Why Combining Social Media Sites Can Be Hazardous to Your Privacy

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Girls Around Me

It’s hard not to feel gross after reading Cult of Mac’s description of Girls Around Me. For those not up-to-date on the controversy, Girls Around Me is an app from Russian developer i-Free which maps out women’s locations and links to personal information about them via their Facebook profiles.

The story’s author, John Brownlee, points out the app’s possibilities after locating a woman named Zoe on a map, which used Foursquare to tell him where and when she’d last been seen and provided a link to information from her Facebook profile:

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.

Creepy? Of course it is. Legal? Absolutely.

The guys behind i-Free didn’t invent some new way to access people’s data. They used existing APIs from Facebook, Foursquare and Google Maps to create a program that utilizes information people willingly give up.

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Sure, the aim and packaging were deplorable, but the most i-Free can be accused of is sexism. Everything else it did was strictly by the book. That’s what makes this story so scary; in a world where people are sharing their personal information on so many different social media networks, all it takes is one clever developer to put all the pieces together and create the perfect stalking app.

New social media apps are constantly being hyped by the press. In terms of how they work, Highlight and Glancee, two stars of South by Southwest, aren’t really that different from Girls Around Me. They both mash up data from Google Maps and Facebook to try and connect strangers (albeit two people who willingly subscribe to the same service, as opposed to one creep and one unsuspecting woman).

Every social media app has privacy controls, but usually the original developer isn’t counting on the app working in tandem with another app that has also collected sensitive information. The result is a combination that can be extremely hazardous to your privacy.

In some cases, developers don’t even need to create a new app to violate your privacy. The original apps do it themselves. I’m amazed every time I see Foursquare updates on Twitter from people I’m not Foursquare friends with. Do they realize how public their Twitter accounts are? Do they realize that even if I’m not their Twitter follower, I can see their update and therefore walk to the coffee shop or bar or restaurant that they just checked into?

The fact is that sites like Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter have thousands of developers using their APIs and there’s no way for those companies to keep track of them all. The App Store and Google Play have standards but, again, there are far too many apps for them to weed out the sketchy ones right away.

The more social media sites you sign up for, the more information developers have to work with and the harder it is to track how each service interacts with another. Being an early adopter is fun, but new apps often have huge gaps in their privacy policies.

My advice: Comb through each social media app’s privacy policy with your other apps in mind, wait for the bugs to be worked out of new apps and be extremely careful about geo-location apps. Or just accept that privacy is a thing of the past.

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