Girls Around Me: A problematic application.

Posted: April 12, 2012 by Carly Bea in Uncategorized

As access to the internet and social networking sites have expanded, privacy and security have become an increasing concern for many.  The advent of internet accessibility on cell phones has led to thousands of applications being developed, some of which are free and some of which must be purchased. A number of these applications allow individuals to have access to information about others.  This may not be too much of a problem when the information is freely given, i.e. the people involved enter their personal details and they are put online for others to see. However, things can turn scary when an application allows people to see information about complete strangers that most likely do not want these details to be shared, and were not aware they were available to the public.

 

 

The application in question is called Girls Around Me, and it is no longer on the market. An article about the app can be found here. A Moscow based developer, I-Free, developed the application to allow people to track the locations of nearby women.  The app works by utilizing publicly available data on the social network FourSquare (which allows users to ‘check-in’ to places, thereby showing their friends where they are). The Girls Around Me application, however, also drew information from women’s Facebook. By using both of these networks, Girls Around Me is able to create a map showing the locations and photographs of nearby women.  It also shows the ratio of women to men in the area. Despite the applications name, settings could be changed to search for men instead, but the default setting was to search for nearby women.  When the app is first loaded, it begins by determining the location of the use and, using Google Maps, showing a map of the surrounding area. Once the user specifies whether they are interested in men or women, the app immediately begins searching for people. Once they are found, their photographs and locations are displayed on the screen.

 

All of the information pulled by this application was publicly available – taken from Facebook and FourSquare, where people had voluntarily entered it. In fact, to be one of the people displayed, one must first “check-in” somewhere using FourSquare. However, these people were not necessarily aware that their information was being used for another application entirely. The application has had mixed reactions, many of which have been negative, especially from women. Concern has been expressed as to the safety of the individuals whose photographs and locations show up.  Some people voiced apprehension as to what implications the app could have if it fell into the wrong hands, such as those of a rapist or stalker.

Consider the following possible situation: A man is interested in meeting a woman, and uses the Girls Around Me application to scan for women in the area. The application detects that there are several women in a bar nearby. Depending on how much information these women have made publicly available on Facebook, he may be able to discern their full names, where they went to school, and even their interests. He could then use this information to strike up a “Remember me from high school?” type conversation.

Of course, this application could be seen as a wake-up call: Facebook isn’t as private as it may appear to be, and settings usually default to share a considerable amount of information. In addition, some people choose to link their accounts.  If one has their Twitter account set to public, linking Twitter  to FourSquare could make their location public to anyone.  People need to be aware of how much information they are sharing, and how they can restrict this from others if desired. It usually only takes a few minutes to delve into the privacy settings of a social networking site, and it is well worth one’s time if it protects one’s privacy.

 

However, the author, Larry Magid, does miss something: the inherent sexism of this application. There is no doubt that over-sharing data is a legitimate concern, but it is also important to consider the implications of sexism and gender relations the application may create. Although the application can be used to find both men and women, its title does not suggest such. It could also be argued that there is some victim-blaming here – the problem is women sharing data, not that men are using the application to find these women.  In fact, some of these women may not be aware they are sharing so much information. They may not even have heard of the application itself. Instead of being blamed for dressing in revealing clothing, women will be blamed for revealing too much data about themselves.  Instead of blaming the people who share the data itself, it is important to consider the sexist culture that has created the desire for an application such as this in the first place.  Because the application pulls information from those who have not necessarily consented to their data being available, it encourages objectification, and in my opinion, is pretty creepy.

Besides all this, this application, like many other social networking sites, seems to discourage getting to know someone the “old-fashioned” way – meeting someone new and having a conversation. Instead, Girls Around Me encourages instant gratification and the chance to obtain information with minimal effort.  I’m not saying there is something inherently awful about social networking sites – just that it is crucial that people be aware of what privacy settings are available and how to use them. In addition, we shouldn’t have to rely on applications such as these to do something as simple as striking up conversation. It could be argued that applications such as these may even further alienate people from each other, because information is accessible at the touch of a finger rather than having to talk to someone.   I for one am happy that this application was removed.

I am wondering what others think – is an application like this okay? Is it ethical to draw out other individuals’ information without their informed consent?  Would you consider using an application such as this?

As always, thanks for reading.

Carly

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