i-Free withdrew its Girls Around Me app, which last week faced a chorus of criticism on various websites for being a stalking tool. It allowed a user to map the location of nearby women and glean information about them, using public Facebook and Foursquare data.
The company said it removed its app from the iTunes App Store because Foursquare, swayed by the controversy, disallowed the app's access to its geolocation API, thereby preventing the app from working properly. The app had been downloaded over 70,000 times.
I-Free defended itself in a statement provided to the Wall Street Journal. "Girls Around Me does not provide any data that is unavailable to the user when he uses his or her social network account, nor does it reveal any data that users did not share with others," the company said.
Girls Around Me might have been tasteless, juvenile, and cynical, but in that it has plenty of company. App stores are full of crassly conceived software. What it's not is creepy, a term used by Cult of Mac to describe the app.
Creepy implies intent. It would be creepy if i-Free designed its app to be used for stalking and harassment. But there isn't any evidence of that intent. Nor is there any evidence that the app has been involved in an actual case of harm.
Certainly, Girls Around Me could be used for stalking, but the same can be said of binoculars. Binoculars are a tool that might be creepy in certain people's hands. But mainly, they're just a tool with legitimate uses.
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Girls Around Me also is a tool, one that aggregates and correlates public data. Its primary crime appears to have been violating Foursquare's rules on aggregating API data from multiple locations. Most Internet users have probably committed a similar website rules violation at one time or another. Just as consumers gloss over privacy policies, i-Free's developers probably didn't read Foursquare's rules very closely.
Where does all this data come from? It's made available by users of Facebook and Foursquare. The thing that's really creepy about Girls Around Me is that it reveals people's proclivity for self-harm. Internet users had privacy before they started using social networks. Now they freak out when they see what can be done with the data they have so blithely shared.
The irony of this particular controversy is that it comes amid a far creepier revelation: According to documents obtained by the ACLU, law enforcement agencies routinely track people using cell phone data, often without warrants and with the cooperation of telecommunications companies--which generate revenue from customer data by charging service fees to law enforcement. You supply the data; your phone company gets paid.
Unlike aggregating public social network data, government scrutiny of cell phone data is a potential violation of constitutionally protected rights: The limited privacy rights enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights concern beliefs, home privacy, protection from government searches and seizures, and protection against self-incrimination. The protection against self-incrimination might as well be scrapped if participation in modern society entails unavoidable self-surveillance.
If you want creepy, consider this passage from a collection of documents compiled to help law enforcement personnel obtain cell phone data. It was posted by privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian. Though it is unattributed, the passage also appears in a 2006 newsletter posted in April 2011, where it's credited to California Deputy Attorney General Robert Morgester.
"Cellular phones have become the virtual biographer of our daily activities," Morgester wrote. "It [sic] tracks who we talk to and where we are. It will log calls, take pictures, and keep our contact list close at hand. In short it has become an indispensable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation."
The question we should be asking is not whether Girls Around Me encourages stalking. It's whether we as users of technology can have privacy if we choose it. Or is the unwritten rule of a mobile service contract that we shall submit a full account of our activities to be documented by our virtual biographer?