The app Girls Around Me is being labeled "a wake-up call" for Facebook privacy.
It's a sexual predator's wet dream.
UPDATE 04.01.12: The Girls Around Me developer claims the attention is making him a "privacy scapegoat." meanwhile, the app has been pulled from the app store (by the developer) and in light of the dangerous potential of this app Foursquare has closed API access to the Girls Around Me app, saying that it violates their API policy. Facebook has not made a statement or taken any action. A Foursquare spokesperson told commenters on Hacker News, "We prohibit using our API in any manner that is threatening, invasive of another's privacy, or otherwise inappropriate." /update
The app urges users (the default assumption is a male user looking for women) to find in person and message nearby girls using information about them pulled from the girls' Facebook profiles, including their photo galleries.
The targeted individuals are unaware they are being tracked and do not have the ability to opt-in - or opt-out.
It does what a lot of geo-location and gaming apps do, though it was only a matter of time before an app such as Girls Around Me (iTunes) framed itself as a stalking tool: the app is explicitly for the user to "find girls" to date.
Sexualizing the target: unknowing women
While users should probably be run through stalking and sex offender databases the free app merely requires the user to use Foursquare and have an iPhone.
Girls Around me is made by the Moscow-based company i-Free.
Users pick a gender (typically user male / target female). A radar-style map opens up to find girls nearby.
Girls Around Me is a revolutionary new city scanner app than turns your town into a dating paradise!
Use it to see where hot girls and guys are hanging out in your area, view their photos and make contact!
The girls have no idea they're being scanned or that their publicly available Facebook and Foursquare data is being loaded into some dude's phone app.
As many of us know, if you don't have your Facebook settings nailed down then your friends can check you into locations. Yay.
- See also: Here's how to turn off friends' ability to check you into Facebook Places (CNET)
What the targeted girls would also probably not appreciate is that they are each represented with foxy-lady style icons, like busty strippers set to take a salacious swing on the pole.
That the icons look like female sex worker icons, or any kind of erotic invitation, is beyond problematic.
The app doesn't expressly say "stalking" on it.
Yet after Cult of Mac's John Brownlee saw it in action, he had no doubt in his mind that the app was the creepiest, most potentially harmful use of APIs and data he'd seen in the iTunes store to date.
I pressed the button ... 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.
(...) 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.
(...) 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.
The data harvest is not a two-way street; Mr. Brownlee's information was not being provided to the women he was experimentally app-stalking.
The women don't get notifications of any kind - let alone equal information about who is tracking them, making the app's use an undisputed power-over situation.
It's not hard to imagine this app in the wrong hands.
Girls Around Me calls itself a dating app, yet seems targeted at the "pick up artist" market - guys that read "The Game" and make sport of using unscrupulous methods to get laid.
You made it public in the first place: today's "she was asking for it"?
It's easy to make a comparison to Grindr, but that is a mistake.
Gay male app Grindr sells itself as a hookup app - successfully - yet the app is a two-way handshake of informed consent about the exchange of personally identifying information and location. Big difference.
The argument that might make Girls Around Me seem legit relies on the public APIs and the information social networks - their users - are making public.
Unlike us paranoid privacy tech people, most regular people are not aware that this can be done with their online activity; combining it, packaging it for anyone's use in real time.
Let alone that someone would create an app that exploits personal information as a way of getting an advantage over someone else for sexual conquest.
Needless to say, it's a terrible idea to use this to meet women. Not simply from an ethical standpoint: no sane girl is going to warm up to a strange man that approaches her knowing way too much about her in the first place.
No matter how this app sells itself, I can promise you that women don't think stalking is hot.
Location based creepiness isn't new
Yes, the data is out there, and Girls Around Me isn't the first of its kind.
Apps have been doing this since at least 2009, when Stalqer was launched.
Stalqer was a location-based startup that essentially scraped all the public data it could find using a number of open APIs, then combined them into one big, very current and scarily accurate, frightening profile about you.
Like Girls Around Me, it relied heavily on Facebook and Foursquare. However, it didn't sell itself as a way to get laid.
- Read also: Stalqer mobile social app finds friends in new ways (CNET)
- See: Stalqer iPhone App Redefines Creepy (PC World)
I met with CEO Mick Johnson in 2010 at the Read Write Web Mobile Summit 2010, and grilled him about Stalqer and consent.
Johnson explained that Stalqer's point was that people are unknowingly putting more information in the publicly available sphere than they realize.
By packaging Stalqer as a "find your friends" geolocation app and naming it Stalqer ("Stalker") it would ostensibly make users immediately aware of the situation they are currently in with their data.
It had a hacker's approach to raising awareness about the harvesting of your public data: it examined the line into nonconsent that is crossed when your public data is packaged and handed off to someone else without your explicit opt-in (Stalqer was acquired, and closed in 2011).
User privacy and safety must work hand-in-hand with informed consent
Made by privacy-obsessed tech geeks, Stalqer subversively aimed to point the finger at the big companies that make it possible through their business models for pretty much anyone to access certain kinds of personal information.
Girls Around Me simply exploits your public data openly. And sexualizes it.
I asked Johnson about getting one's data off of Stalqer - especially since the information was being aggregated about people regardless of voluntary participation (reminding me about issues around Facebook tracking people that are not Facebook users).
To opt-out, I would first need to claim and verify that the data footprint was mine. But then, he explained, the big companies are still collecting it and making it available to be re-compiled by anyone, let alone his company.
So for all the - well founded - outcry and outrage about Girls Around Me right now, it serves to know that apps like this have been considered a potential business model for years, and will likely continue for years to come.
The question is: where does responsibility lie for individual safety with an app such as Girls Around Me?
And - when are companies that handle data which could be dangerous in the wrong hands going to realize that user privacy and safety must work hand-in-hand with informed consent?
I hope we never find out the hard way.