Are location-based social networks privacy disasters waiting to happen? Or are the supposed “dangers” simply being overhyped by those without a thorough understanding of what these new networks can and cannot do? Today, these questions are the subject of a serious debate among early adopters – the group of people who are first to sign up for and try out the latest technology innovations, testing everything from iPads to mobile apps.
There are currently a number of location-based social networks clamoring for your attention, including earlier contenders like Loopt and Brightkite as well as the later to arrive game-based networks like Foursquare and Gowalla. Even user review site Yelp is getting in on the action. So is Google. And so is Facebook, apparently.
But is sharing your location with your online “friends” asking for trouble?
Please Rob Me? OK! Says Burglar
Not too long ago, a social experiment called PleaseRobMe launched, displaying the aggregated real-time updates from Foursquare users who used the service’s social sharing feature to broadcast their updates publicly on Twitter. Although that site has since been shuttered, the point they were trying to make still resonates: sharing your physical location with a public network is a dangerous and really dumb idea.
Want more examples? How about the story of the Twitter user who broadcast his vacation only to find his house robbed when he came home. Or more recently, a women’s Facebook status update alerted a burglar that her home was empty and ready to be robbed. (The thief got away with $10,000 in stolen goods).
Social Networks and Privacy
However, the above incidents take place on a somewhat public stage. (The Facebook woman, for instance, had collected around 600 friends – surely not all of them were truly personal contacts?)
The new mobile social networking services allow for a bit more privacy. On these networks, you can control who you “friend” and, in some cases, who can see your exact location. Brightkite, for example, lets you choose to share updates with either just friends or with everyone. Foursquare lets you check in to locations “off the grid,” meaning checking in privately without letting your friends know where they can find you.
Unfortunately, the issue with all these networks comes down to how someone defines the word “friend.” Ever since the days of MySpace, it seems the goal has been to accumulate the most friends. This mindset has carried over to many other social networks, including Twitter, the social aggregator FriendFeed and Google Buzz, all of which publicly track and expose how many people follow you, an indication of popularity…and who doesn’t want to be popular?
The truth is, an online friend may or may not be worthy of the same level of trust as someone you know in real life. Sure, they might be – in fact, odds are they are lovely people – but without a history of interaction that extends beyond sharing a few links and comments on Twitter, you can’t possibly know that for sure.
Dangers to Women?
This is the point that Director of Partner Marketing for the Rackspace Cloud Michelle Greer makes on a recent blog post where she explains why she can’t get excited about geolocation. “I’ve had some not so pleasant experiences with someone who felt compelled to tell me that I couldn’t block him from certain circles of my life,” she wrote. “When I’d tweet that people should go to an event, he’d friend everyone involved. He was basically trying to be everywhere I was both online and off and it was very scary.”
Also frightening is the story from out-spoken blogger Harriet Jacobs. She discovered that Google had revealed her location with the launch of its social network, Buzz. It exposed what she believed were private comments on blog posts shared in Google Reader. Those who could now see these details included a group of anonymous strangers (aka “blog readers”) who had sent her threats over the years. Plus, her top emailed contact was none other than an abusive ex-husband. All this because Google mistakenly thought that your email contact list was – in all cases – your true social network. Google has since apologized for the blunder, but the damage was done.
Anecdotally, the fears of being socially stalked have been whispered behind the scenes ever since these mobile social networks launched. While some may claim (perhaps accurately) that these examples of the supposed dangers are fringe cases, the sad truth is that women are stalked and harassed more often than men – it’s just a statistical fact. Most won’t blog about it as publicly as Greer or Jacobs did, though – they simply won’t use a service that discloses their location.
You Can be Smart About This…but Can the Mainstream?
Now, granted, there are ways to maintain some privacy when using services like these, whether you’re worried about stalking, robbery or simply want to be left alone. Social networker extraordinaire Robert Scoble made a few suggestions in the comments of Greer’s blog post. His ideas: lie about your exact location, be more picky about your friends, change your name or check in after you’ve left. These are all tactics that would certainly work well, so now the decision users have to make is should they bother? Some may feel that’s quite a bit effort just to generate a badge collection or get a tip about a restaurant’s best dish. But others will find more compelling reasons to use mobile social networks. At big events, for example, these networks can help you find your friends. You may even save a few bucks on your meal thanks to a mobile coupon received upon check-in – and everyone loves saving money.
Still, if early adopters are still debating these risks and rewards, what will the mainstream think? They’re already terrified of the molesters on MySpace and the boss reading their Facebook status. And many of them are so technically un-savvy that they opted in to letting Facebook share their updates with everyone without even realizing it. Some of them don’t even know when they’re on Facebook or when they’re reading this blog. Are these people capable of using mobile social networks properly in ways that won’t put them at risk? Or will they add friends willy-nilly, broadcast their every move then be stunned when something bad happens?