Case Study on Online Privacy
An Ethics Case Study
There once was an app called "Girls Around Me." After a sudden outburst of media coverage, it got pulled off the market. Read the summary of the controversy (below), as well as the articles to which it links; what questions do they raise for you?
In late March 2012, a flurry of blog entries and articles focused on an app called "Girls Around Me." The app, which was produced by a Russian developer and available through the iTunes App Store, presented itself as "a revolutionary new city scanner app that turns your town into a dating paradise!" The app's website asked, "In the mood for love, or just after a one-night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control! Reveal the hottest nightspots, who's in them, and how to reach them… Browse photos of lovely local ladies and tap their thumbnail to find out more about them."
The "lovely local ladies" were not people who had signed up to be associated with this app. They had either chosen to make their Facebook and Foursquare profiles public, or had simply not reset the default privacy settings on their Facebook and Foursquare accounts. By its own description, "Girls Around Me" mashed the publicly available data from Facebook and Foursquare and plotted it onto a map. Users of the app would see a map of their surroundings, with thumbnail photos from publicly available profiles of women who had recently "checked into" particular locations in the neighborhood. Some of those thumbnails might be clustered in busy locations (restaurants, bars, etc.). By clicking on a thumbnail, the app user would get access to the Facebook account of the woman in the picture, and be able to access all the information available there; the user would also be able to send a message to that woman.
In response to the outcry over the "creepiness" of "Girls Around Me," the app's developer, i-Free Innovations, provided a statement to the Wall Street Journal. In it, the company argued that it had been made a "scapegoat" in regard to privacy concerns, when "many other mobile apps provide the same or more extended functionality…" It stressed that "Girls Around Me" does not "search for extra information apart from the information that users share with others. … The Facebook accounts shown as available to send a message are the accounts that Foursquare users make public in their profiles." It also added that the app had been available "for several months already and … was downloaded more than 70,000 times. … We were planning to continue developing the app and limit it to showing only public places and venues. … [W]e intended to bring our best effort to … develop filters to limit user access only to public venues shared by other users." The company vowed to try to enable current users to keep using the app, and stated that it had received "numerous positive comments from users who claimed that the app helped them to discover 'hot spots'—venues that are popular among girls and boys."
Although many commentators continued to describe "Girls Around Me" as a "creepy girl-stalking app," some others argued that the fault, if any, lay with the people who allowed their profiles to be public, taking no measures to protect their own privacy. Yet others, like blogger Kashmir Hill, wrote that the women who showed up on "Girls Around Me" may have made a conscious choice to make their information public: "Many of us," she wrote, "have become comfortable putting ourselves out there publicly in the hopes of making connections with friends and strangers … It's only natural that this digital openness will transfer over to the 'real world,' and that we will start proactively projecting our digital selves to facilitate in-person interactions."
Irina Raicu is the Internet Ethics Program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
Photo by http://girlsaround.me/.