Recently there’s been lots of commentary and criticism about location social networks and services such as Google Latitude, Foursquare and Loopt. A website called Please Rob Me set up this week has aggregated users’ tweets from Foursquare and reported these users as not being at home. The point they are getting across is that when one broadcasts their location, they also tell their followers that they are not at home.
Initially Foursquare has responded to the site with this blog post. The main point it tries to convey is that your data is only broadcast within your group of Foursquare friends, unless you choose otherwise. Many users choose to broadcast their locations on Facebook and Twitter, which is the feature that Please Rob Me is trying to exploit as the weak point of one’s privacy.
I’d like to point out a few things about the use of these social networks that emphasise users’ control of their own data.
First, it’s pretty obvious that you are responsible for what you put on the internet, and that when information is public, it is effectively out of your control. You have the choice of revealing your home or not, obviously. Thus this is where Please Rob Me fails. If people don’t share their home information, then telling people where you are is not a problem.
Second, and to build the case against Please Rob Me, you can control what your network of friends can see. Facebook allows you to control what information is seen by who. Foursquare gives you the option of broadcasting your location to Facebook friends and/or Twitter followers. It is up to the user to decide how comfortable they are with sharing their location. It surprises me how much people are sharing about themselves unknowingly.
On a side note, someone asked me whether I trusted everyone in my Facebook friend list. Well the answer is yes. The reason is, that I don’t add ‘randoms’ and I know exactly who is on my friend list. I have a policy when it comes to adding friends on my list, and I do trust them with my location information.
This forces the user to be aware about the information they share, and be smart about it. For example, I know exactly how many people have access to my home address. Please Rob Me essentially is a wake up call to those who share liberally.
But let’s look at the other side of this argument: the benefits of location social networks.
The obvious benefit is that you are able to see whether your friends are near you, so you can meet up and do cool stuff together. Foursquare’s points system encourages you to explore your city, and meet up with friends too.
Another reason who location social networks are useful, is to let someone know where you are. I have used Latitude for this purpose before.
So to sum up, the user is in control of their information, it is up to them to decide how comfortable they are sharing different types of information, and also to be aware of who the information is reaching.