Monday, March 7, 2011

Foursquare privacy

I've resisted playing with the selection of location-aware apps until recently. But now some client needs push me towards them.

Take, for example, Foursquare. It claims in excess of 7m users and is easy, even fun, to engage with: register at, or just download the app and register from there... They say, "Foursquare gives you & your friends new ways to explore your city. Earn points & unlock badges for discovering new things."

It's bizarre how addictive it can be; and how weirdly rewarding it can feel to gain nothing tangible, just a few 'points,' for checking in to a venue or being told you've become the 'Mayor' of a place. It reminds me of how we were able to train our tiny children with a sticker on a chart for good behaviour!

But, then, there are the concerns: by travelling around, adding places, correcting details, taking photos, writing tips ... we the users are populating what will become a really valuable database. Foursquare will use the contents to make lots of money. Not only is there the richly detailed geo-location information; but there'll be lots of detail about the sorts of things people do, when, how often - and how one location is associated in space and time with another ... and on and on ... Foursquare will make money and users are 'paid' for their work on the company's behalf in 'points' and fun and information. ('Information' is not just about deals or good things to eat or do. Here's one practical suggestion: "Gents! - Don't use the middle urinal. You may be dripped on by the water tank above!")

Users might also suffer some privacy concerns. Foursquare takes this privacy issue seriously. But the project drew valuable attention to the issues of broadcasting empty homes:

What to do?
  • Think!
  • Consider posting your location updates after you get back rather than in real time
  • Consider registering your First name and the first initial of your Last name only; what profile picture are you going to put up?
  • When registering, read the site's Privacy Policy; check out the Settings and consider changing the default settings to be more restrictive.
  • Consider only making 'friends' through the software with people you really want to have a relationship with in geo-location terms. I've got many American friends using Foursquare, but now I'm living back in Europe there's no need for them to know precisely where I am through the day! Equally, I've only got Foursquare close family and friends in the same city able to view my profile detail. It's not like Facebook or LinkedIn where people choose to be a bit more promiscuous in friendships!
  • (With Foursquare) Do NOT link your Twitter account if you value privacy: yes, it's possible to change the settings so updates are not automatically pushed to Twitter; yes, it's possible to restrict your travel details to friends on Foursquare; BUT if you link your Twitter account to Foursquare then anyone can type[Twitter Account] into their browser address bar to see your activity. If you don't link Twitter then they have to know your Foursquare user number first.
What am I missing here? This technology field is changing and evolving almost daily and 'best practice' needs to change to keep up. 

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