Girls Around Me App: It’s Complicated

If you find out everything about someone by talking to lots of people, then put the information together and tell everyone else, are you being creepy? Or are you just a gossip?

That’s the gist of the argument raging around the controversial Girls Around Me iOS app.

The app scours Facebook and FourSquare for information women have posted on these services’ public pages. It then collates that data and ties it to those women’s current geolocation as provided on FourSquare. The app’s users can then see a list of those women who happen to be in their vicinity. It also let users attempt to contact those people — even if they were strangers — through Facebook.

Some reports of the app’s workings described it as creepy and likened what it does to stalking. The controversy led FourSquare to pull the app, and the app was later removed from the iTunes App Store.

However, the reported app’s creator, a Russian company that goes by the name of “i-Free,” claimed it’s done nothing wrong — that it only pulls together information that is otherwise freely available. [*Correction – April 4, 2012]

Why Hate ‘Girls Around Me?’

Critics who object to the app have pointed to the program’s way of showing thumbnail images of women, some scantily dressed, and it’s ability to collate information about its subjects without their knowledge.

“I don’t think people expect an app will come out that gets all that information that’s been publicly posted on sites like Facebook, combines it, and puts it out there,” John Simpson, consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog, told TechNewsWorld. “There’s a huge ethical problem with that.”

Others say the app is a wake-up call. People should take personal responsibility for what they post, Erica Newland, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, insisted.

“When we make our information public … we have to recognize that the information might be used by anyone, including those we may not want to trust,” Newland told TechNewsWorld.

More Objections to the App

Users of the Girls Around Me app who have bad intentions could pose a physical threat to people, warned Michelle Dennedy, vice president and Chief Privacy Officer at McAfee.

“If you’ve ever had a stalker, you will understand how bad things can get in a very short period of time,” she told TechNewsWorld. “MySpace was never the same after a young child met her attacker online and disclosed her location.”

Such an app could also create a new threat to enterprise security.

“Many of us blog, tweet and [post on] Facebook in both our personal and professional [capacities],” Dennedy said. “I can see the outlines of a legal theory for liability if you are, say, in the medical field or a therapist or teacher, or someone who routinely deals with protected classes of information or users.”

An app that collates publicly available data about people could also make them easier targets for spear phishing — email attacks that are crafted to their targets — according to Dennedy.

Constantly check and update your privacy preferences, McAfee’s Dennedy suggested. “Most preferences seem to allow for maximum sharing, so never assume that a default setting would close off your footprint to this type of cyber snooping.”

What Are We Arguing About?

Some women don’t particularly care for the “Girls Around Me” app but are concerned about the direction of the arguments against it.

They include Marie Connelly, one of the women who was pictured in a critical article about the app on The Cult of Mac.

While she agrees that the app’s creepy and applauds Foursquare’s decision to pull it, Connelly points out that the argument against the app generally seems to suggest that people who post information publicly, especially women, are doing something wrong. The conversation seems to be about whether it’s safe to be a woman and live in public, she contends.

*ECT News Network editor’s note – April 4, 2012: The original version of this article identified SMS Direct as the maker of Girls Around Me. There was no basis in fact for making that assertion.

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