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All the Girls Around Me

Blake J. Graham | Monday, April 2, 2012

I’m eating lunch on the outdoor patio at a restaurant on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Calif. Hundreds of people are flowing in and out of storefronts, restaurants, theaters and whatnot. A street performer is playing a rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing” on what appears to be a musical saw. It’s as good a time as any to test the fabled iPhone app “Girls Around Me.” In keeping with its name, the app pools three types of data together: Foursquare check-ins, Facebook profiles and GPS-located Google Maps. And it does all of this to show the girls who are around you.

30 seconds later I’ve downloaded the app and tap to open it. The splash screen is as suspect as the name. It displays several Bond-style, nude silhouettes of women posing like pole dancers in the middle of radar grids. The splash screen disappears and a map loads showing the images of 40 girls in proximity to me. Real people who are just sitting on a predatory map.

There are plenty of apps using this geo-location technology. Open up Yelp and you’ll be centered in a map that shows all the great places to eat around you. Check in to Foursquare and it’ll do the same. What makes Girls Around Me so different and sinister is that the girls listed have no clue that they might be appearing on the phone of some guy eating lunch a couple of meters away.

I tap on one girl at random. Her name was Sarah and the app pulls up basic information about her: name, where she is, how long ago she was there and a full screen version of her Facebook profile image. Then at the bottom there’s a big green button labeled “photos and messaging.” As my finger lingers over it, I look around at the street expecting passersby to point their fingers at me and yell, “pervert.” They don’t, so I click it. It links to her public Facebook profile.

In all of 30 seconds, I learn how old she is (22), where she went to high school (Harvard-Westlake (wow!)), college (Tufts), her favorite book (Self-Reliance), what she’s interested in (men), her brother’s name (Zach). Two more taps and I can access her photos. I then learn how she looks in a bikini (exceptionally athletic). Amazed at how quickly I invaded her privacy and undressed her life and person, I put my phone down and looked away from it. It was a special type of shame. The waiter asks if I’d like another Coke. I nod, but my mind is still on poor Sarah. Poor Sarah whose life is an open book. Poor Sarah who is not more than 20 meters away.

The thing is, Sarah and every other girl who appeared on my screen put that information online. When creating a Facebook profile, why not indicate your favorite book or list your relatives? And what’s the harm in your albums entitled “Summer 2010,” “Summer 2011,” “Spring Break 2012,” etc. After all, Facebook is a place for friends. Foursquare is a useful tool as well. The only people who will check it are your friends and you do so ever want to be the mayor of the Safeway (and so close you are!). Girls Around Me just puts all that information together and the result is exceptionally creepy. They never intended to be on some predator’s radar.

The Girls Around Me website describes it as “the perfect complement to any pick-up strategy. And with millions of chicks checking in daily, there’s never been a better time to be on the hunt.” So the logical next steps are as follows. I walk down to the store she is at and introduce myself. I could pretend I went to Harvard-Westlake as well, tell her she was a senior when I was a freshman. But the school is a bit too small for that. I could do the same for Tufts. Lead off a conversation about silly school colors and whisk her away with an Emerson quote: “I do not wish to expiate, but to live.”

But I do none of that, because objectifying women with the aid of hyper-personal technology has never been my fancy. Instead I put my phone away and try very hard to forget Sarah and everything I know about her. And I do. For about two weeks when Girls Around Me exploded in the media.

I started to talk with people about how they felt they might be violated. The consensus was generally the same. “I didn’t give my information to that app,” they would moan. “But you essentially did,” I inform them. “By letting all your Facebook and Foursquare information be public, there was nothing stopping a company from creating a service that connects one to the other.” They were afraid and threatened because too much data was available – it was as if they had lost control of their own lives when it became accessible to complete strangers lurking nearby.

Here’s where things broke down. People had expectation of where and how the information they shared was going to be used. And the media channels they shared with provide incentive for people to continuously share. Your Facebook experience is better the more details of your life you give up. Foursquare accumulates value from knowing where you are all the time. A privacy violation doesn’t occur because too much information exists. Rather, it occurs when the right information goes to the wrong place. To get academic, we follow “context-relative informational norms.” The second a norm is broken, chaos and fear ensue.

Girls Around Me has since been pulled from the Apple App Store. But there is absolutely nothing to stop other apps of a similar nature from appearing, and in six to ten months, there will be new services pulling in even more information than before. Due to the sheer volume of apps developed, there doesn’t exist a good system to check and warn against seemingly deviant services. What’s more, Girls Around Me didn’t really even do anything wrong. Let shock and anger follow that comment, but the onus is on the user. I am not the first to say this and I certainly wont be the last. If you are not paying for something, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold. Take caution. Too much is at stake.

Blake J. Graham is a freshman. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.