Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

So What Exactly Can Location Aggregators Do With Our Foursquare Data?

You might have heard about the Girls Around Me scandal this weekend, where an app got taken down that correlated Foursquare check-ins with Facebook profiles to show nearby women on a map.

The widespread analysis of the matter was that Girls Around Me was creepy, but that people should realize that when they publish their locations online, bad things may happen. Technology writers, in our enthusiastically adopted roles as the white knights of online privacy, urged readers to lock down their Foursquare and Facebook profiles.

The situation made me curious about what, exactly, location aggregators are being allowed to do with our location data. It’s one thing to share where you are with your friends, or with what you think is a small audience of early adopters. But what’s more tricky — and can often feel icky — is when that information is exposed in a different context.

According to Foursquare, Girls Around Me broke its platform policy by aggregating information across venues. That got the app’s API access yanked. But Foursquare apparently wasn’t effectively policing API use, because the app launched in December and seems to have gone unnoticed until bad press brought it to light.

In its public rebuttal, Girls Around Me developer i-Free argued that other apps, like Banjo and Sonar, “provide the same or more extended functionality using location data provided by APIs of major social networks.”

Is that true? On Quora, Foursquare platform evangelist Akshay Patil went into detail about what rules i-Free was breaking, and what others are doing that’s okay. (A Foursquare spokeswoman confirmed to me that his answer was legit and accurate).

Patil said the specific problem was a part of the Foursquare API called “herenow,” that shows which users are currently checked in at a location. These are the groups of little user faces that logged-in Foursquare users can see when they look up any place within the system (it’s easiest to look up places nearby, but you can manually check any venue). Outside developers aren’t allowed to aggregate that information across multiple venues.

Plus, Girls Around Me was threatening or invasive of users’ privacy, did not have a privacy policy, and misused Foursquare’s trademarks, Patil said.

Patil said Foursquare planned to make the restrictions around this “herenow” data clearer in the future.

But what about those other people-seeking applications built on top of Foursquare, like Banjo, Sonar and wheretheladies.at?

This is where it gets a little tricky, with each app doing something a bit different. Banjo doesn’t use check-ins that are shared only with other Foursquare users. I believe the app used to do this in its very early days, but currently Banjo only aggregates Foursquare check-ins when they are publicly cross-posted to Twitter.

Meanwhile, Patil said that Sonar does use “herenow,” but only on a venue-by-venue basis, and more tastefully than Girls Around Me. The main interface for Sonar is a list of nearby venues with the number of people at them, but you have to click on each place to see the people there, so that seems to be the distinction. There’s also no map view.

Wheretheladies.at, which was a side project of two guys from Path and Milk that was also built around women’s Foursquare check-ins, now appears to have been taken down as well (update: Scratch that; it’s up now). But Patil said that app’s Foursquare API use was okay because it showed counts of number of women at a venue, not user identities.

I know I’m getting deep into the weeds, and I apologize for that — but I think clarity around these details is important. What’s clear is that Foursquare needs to be more vigilant about policing developers access to its users’ location information. And users obviously need to be aware that it’s possible that their check-ins could be misused, so they should be careful.

But the reason people use Foursquare is not to have more privacy.

The point of sharing our locations is to explore new places, meet new people, and brag about doing cool stuff. I doubt that the majority of the population will be volunteering where they are on Foursquare anytime soon. But those of us who want a little more serendipity in our lives now know a bit more about how our information will be used.


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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google