Who’s afraid of the big bad location?

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Image: dpstyles / some rights reserved

An article by Leo Hickman was on the cover of the Guardian’s G2 this morning, entitled “How I became a Foursquare stalker”. In it, the journalist outlines some of the potential problems with location sharing:

“[T]here are growing concerns that Foursquare is proving to be a “stalker’s dream”….The big worry, say critics, is who might get to make use of this information. Pick your paranoia. Someone with criminal intent, such as a burglar, identity thief or stalker? Governments, the security services or police? Terrorists? Or a corporation looking to target its products at you with incredible precision?”

Much of this potential risk, says the article, is because of “Foursquare’s default position on privacy is that users must “opt-out” if they don’t want any of their location-based details broadcast to friends and the wider world.”

Er, Ok. It’s true; when you join Foursquare, you must “opt-out” if you don’t want certain details shared with fellow users. However, you must opt-in to sign up to the service – and indeed any other location-based service – in the first place. If you are seriously worried about your location and privacy, don’t sign up.

Elsewhere, the journalist talks about the findings of Jesper Andersen, a coding expert who managed to scrape Foursquare for 875,000 checkins in San Francisco, and asked users he knew to confirm his findings. “Some were grossed out by it, and a couple of people stopped using Foursquare. One had a stalker and got creeped out by it.”

So, in anecdotal evidence, one user, in the city that uses Foursquare the most, “had a stalker and got creeped out by it”. Not really a terrorist threat, then.

Ok, location is something that should be thought about, and, I guess, dealt with with care. But to find any real and present danger, you have to extrapolate extensively, as this article has.

In fact, let’s have a proper think about that list of malevolent stalkers. Is Foursquare really the breakthrough burglars, identity thieves, spies, police investigators and terrorists have been waiting for? I would’ve thought that if you were into any of the above, your methods would be slightly more sophisticated than knowing what bar I was in ten minutes ago.

It seems that all of the concerns raised by the article can be easily dealt with by sensible use. The article argues that if you “accept a friend request in Foursquare without due care and you are potentially opening up your personal diary to a complete stranger.” Don’t accept someone who isn’t a real friend, then. Not rocket science.

So, location sharing doesn’t cause cancer, and shouldn’t be put on the terrorist most-wanted list. Until someone begins actively grabbing your data – perhaps by scanning your phone a you enter a building, or by facial recognition – privacy and location sharing is controlled by the user.

As things stand, it all comes back round to the same point: Every time I check in to Foursquare, or turn on Google Latitude, or post a geo-tagged image on Twitter, I have chosen to do it. I am opting in. No need to sound the alarm.

If you want to read an article (from the very same publication!) on how Foursquare isn’t going to kill you, here’s a piece I wrote on how Foursquare is a very handy traveller’s tool.

One response to “Who’s afraid of the big bad location?

  1. Hey Benji,
    I liked your piece on foursquare for travellers. Nicely written, and I think that most people now seem to “get” that sensible use of foursquare doesn’t have to compromise privacy.

    You might like to check out the Foursquare app I’ve just built: http://www.myfoursquare.net/
    My Foursquare makes it easy to display your badges, mayorships and checkins on Facebook, WordPress and any other site via an embed code…

    These apps are more for those users who are interested in the social aspects of foursquare, as they allow sharing of foursquare data to their social graph.

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