privacyThese days, most people are not on just one social platform. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Foursquare, and others have found extensive use during the rise of the smartphone. Quite often, they are configured to work together as well, which is where things get sticky.

Facebook users are accustomed to seeing posts float across their timeline, stating that a friend has just uploaded pictures to Flickr, posted to Twitter, or checked in to his or her favorite coffee shop via Foursquare. The seamless experience is possible because that user opted to allow those platforms to share data, or have made their data public.

Just how much data you have made public and how it can be repurposed is the part most people don’t really understand. John Brownlee did a brilliant job of illustrating this in a recent piece he wrote for Cult of Mac. The column was spurred by the reaction of his friends to an app called “Girls Around Me” (no longer available in the iTunes store, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

The app is designed for guys looking for girls, as you might gather from the name. It scans around you for Facebook or Foursquare check-ins, and any public social data attached to them. I strongly advise reading Brownlee’s entire article, but I am going to share the disturbing part — his blow-by-blow of the app in use. If this doesn’t make you want to update your privacy settings, I don’t know what will.

The author has just fired up the app and found a list of women in the immediate area based on geo-tagged posts. He writes:

I tapped on Zoe. Girls Around Me quickly loaded up a fullscreen render of her Facebook profile picture. The app then told me where Zoe had last been seen (The Independent) and when (15 minutes ago). A big green button at the bottom reading ‘Photos & Messaging’ just begged to be tapped, and when I did, I was whisked away to Zoe’s Facebook profile.

Okay, so here’s Zoe. Most of her information is visible, so I now know her full name. I can see at a glance that she’s single, that she is 24, that she went to Stoneham High School and Bunker Hill Community College, that she likes to travel, that her favorite book is Gone With The Wind and her favorite musician is Tori Amos, and that she’s a liberal. I can see the names of her family and friends. I can see her birthday. […]

I tapped on the photo album, and a collection of hundreds of publicly visible photos loaded up. I quickly browsed them.

Okay, so it looks like Zoe is my kind of girl. From her photo albums, I can see that she likes to party, and given the number of guys she takes photos with at bars and clubs at night, I can deduce that she’s frisky when she’s drunk, and her favorite drink is a frosty margarita. She appears to have recently been in Rome. Also, since her photo album contains pictures she took at the beach, I now know what Zoe looks like in a bikini… which, as it happens, is pretty damn good. […]

So now I know everything to know about Zoe. I know where she is. I know what she looks like, both clothed and mostly disrobed. I know her full name, her parents’ full names, her brother’s full name. I know what she likes to drink. I know where she went to school. I know what she likes and dislikes. All I need to do now is go down to the Independent, ask her if she remembers me from Stoneham High, ask her how her brother Mike is doing, buy her a frosty margarita, and start waxing eloquently about that beautiful summer I spent in Roma.

I’ve spent years trying to get friends, family, and clients to adopt stricter control over their data. Unfortunately, ease of use and convenience often seem to trump privacy concerns.

If the shocked reactions I’ve gotten to sharing this one are any measure over the general user sentiment, most people find this illustration horrifying. While on some level they might know this data is public, the ramifications of that fact often escape notice until pointed out in such blunt fashion.

Wired‘s Christina Bonnington has a number of tips for the industry on ways in which to create a greater amount of user control and transparency. These are two things not only desperately needed, but also guaranteed to reduce the amount of marketing data that can be collected. I highly advise our readers in that industry to take a look at her ideas.

She also reports that Foursqure revoked access to its API after becoming aware of Brownlee’s article. “Girls Around Me” has also been removed from the iTunes store, although she says it will be returning with a more gender-neutral name.

Image by Alan Cleaver, used under its Creative Commons license.

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