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Foursquare steps up to privacy concerns

Posted by Max Tatton-Brown on 18th August 2010

Popular location-sharing service Foursquare has just announced revisions to its privacy settings, no doubt to combat the risk of perception in articles like this from The Guardian where it was depicted more or less as a stalker’s best friend. What’s interesting is that in this case, as with many, the vulnerability was introduced by poor judgement on the part of the user.

As with viruses where behavioural engineering has become the key means of tricking users into activating the malicious code, this is now the biggest threat for the new generation of location-based services.

Arguably, education is the key and with its new “privacy grid“, the company has gone some way to providing a way to clearly understand who can see the information you are sharing.  Whether or not the average user will ever examine this table, on the other hand, is a different matter.

Facing the privacy challenge

Of course, Facebook is supposed to be revealing its own location functionality today so it’ll be interesting to see how the privacy policies match up with those of other services in the area. Especially considering the hubbub that surrounded Zuckerberg and co. earlier this year when they tried to make all profiles public by default.

There’s another conversation to be had here too about the trend of automatic syndication to other social networks. In The Guardian article above, it was the automatic linking with Twitter that actually allowed the ‘stalker’ to hunt his prey.

Sharing without permission

On a more innocuous level, Twifficiency, a service which rates the efficiency of a Twitter account, yesterday showed how badly such default behaviour can go down. Because simply clicking the link and authorizing it to check your account resulted in a tweet, streams were soon full of them, sending the topic trending and abuse hurling towards its creator soon after.

But for better or worse, it’s equally testament to how effective the auto-tweet can be in terms of publicity. One thing’s for sure, there’s a 17 year old Scottish programmer who now has a great line to add to his CV.

Raised stakes

As the real world meets virtual, getting these challenges right isn’t going to be easy and there will be no doubt be further slip-ups in the future. But the big issue is that when things go wrong with privacy settings, we’re not looking just at bug reports but potentially very serious crimes. This should be incentive enough for the odd privacy grid here and there.

Max Tatton-Brown