Monday Grok: Girls Around Me app pushed too far

Also, Facebook climbs to $44.10 a share

Some days are diamonds. And some days those diamonds are the size of Jupiter. The story which unfolded around the Girls Around Me app in recent days highlights both the best and worst of the net sector.

The worst of course, being the opportunity and willingness of some developers to exploit the open nature of social sharing. And the best being the self regulating nature of the net sector which pretty much killed Girls Around Me stone dead before the arguments really even got going. (And as an aside, it was Old Media — the NYT and the WSJ that lead the smackdown.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the back-story, it’s everything you need to drive endless pages of "Privacy Outrage" stories. And this is a genuine privacy shocker involving clueless users, creepy stalkers and vague and opaque comic book villains in the form of a Russian developer (or perhaps it was just misunderstood).

So, what’s all the fuss about? Here’s how <i>The New York Times</i> described the app: “Girls Around Me uses Foursquare, the location-based mobile service, to determine your location. It then scans for women in the area who have recently checked-in on the service. Once you identify a woman you’d like to talk to, one that inevitably has no idea you’re snooping on her, you can connect to her through Facebook, see her full name, profile photos and send her a message.”

Among the myriad problems was that those being scanned (or stalked, depending on your perspective) had no idea it was happening, had not provided permissions for it to happen and had no way of opting in or out of the process. Instead, decisions they made about their privacy settings in other services, like Facebook and Foursquare, were being exploited without any regard to the context of those decisions in the original source.

This app is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin, although plenty of people have tried. Here’s the <i>ZDNet</i> angle under the headline “Girl's Around Me App Hunts Women via Facebook, Foursquare”. So, there’s no mistaking the editorial angle here. Normally, Grok lives to make fun of this kind of confected outrage in the tech press. Except today the outrage isn’t confected.

In fairness to the funsters who wrote this app, they are entitled to a right of reply — something which is missing from most of the coverage. Luckily, there’s a pretty comprehensive and unfiltered response from the app developer (called i-Free, but also SMS Services O.o.o. — apparently both are correct) published in full in the <i>Wall Street Journal</i>.

You can, and probably should, read the WSJ piece. But just in case you don’t, here’s a short grab to get you started:

“Girls Around Me app was designed to make geo-social exploration of popular venues easy and visual. We follow the geo-social trend for mobile devices that is supported by numerous location sharing services, networks and apps. Many other mobile apps provide the same or more extended functionality using location data provided by APIs of major social networks, i.e. or Sonar.

“Girls Around Me does not allow anonymous usage of the app. It is impossible to search for a particular person in this app, or track his/her location. The app just allows the user to browse the venues nearby, as if you passed by and looked in the window. The Girls Around Me user has to be registered in Foursquare and must be logged in this service to be able to see anything in Girls Around Me. The app Girls Around Me does not have access to user login and password, authentication is carried out on the social network side. Girls Around Me shows to the user only the data that is available to him or her through his or her accounts in Foursquare, and gives the user nothing more than Foursquare app can provide itself...”

There’s a lot more and it’s worth reading because, even though, frankly, it’s deluding itself, it’s important to understand how it arrived at its rationalisations.

Now, oddly enough, Grok has form in this area. About six months ago, while involved in a planning meeting for a Web application he was helping to fund, the light bulb went on above the head of our Information Architect. The IA pointed out that if we continued in our current vein we would be unleashing a Web application that would identify the addresses, ages and personal habits and interests of the residents of potentially thousands of female-only share houses in Australia.

“Whoa. Cool,” was Grok’s immediate reaction, already revaluing his equity contribution skywards off the back of all those grateful, affluent, male, iPhone owning university graduates.

“No, not cool,” explained the IA launching into an entirely appropriate, but value crushing lecture on social responsibility and brand integrity. The IA had immediately keyed into the essential creepiness of what was in reality an accidental consequence of an entirely different idea which was driving the development.

This is all of which a long winded way of saying that just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. Unless, of course, you are Foursquare or Apple and you can do something about Girl’s Around Me. Because then, you really should. And they did. Both zipped Girls Around Me, quick smart.

According to the <i>Business Insider</i>, Facebook basically left its users to defend for themselves. It’s hardly surprising given past form. Now Grok loves Facebook. Really loves it.

But sometimes we wish it would take a good hard look at itself and ask whether it always has its users’ best interests at heart.

Yes Facebook, it’s your data. But it’s our privacy.

Speaking of Facebook...

According to <i>The Next Web,/i>, the final round of Facebook share sales of the secondary market prior the IPO closed in the last few days. Shares traded at $44.10, valuing the business a few lazy billion above the magical $100 billion mark that everyone is anticipating. The actual result suggests a valuation of about $104 billion. Staggering.

And yes, we are aware of the irony in the context of today’s discussion.

Andrew Birmingham is the CEO of Silicon Gully Investments. Follow him on Twitter @ag_birmingham .

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