Series of Tubes: Social Media Privacy

This past Friday (March 30), Cult of Mac writer John Brownlee published an article about a smartphone app called “Girls Around Me.” This article exploded in a privacy backlash before the weekend was over, resulting in one social media network pulling the app’s access to its data, a second investigating the app for a possible terms of use violation, and the makers of the app voluntarily pulling “Girls Around Me” from the iPhone market.

This Creepy App Isn’t Just Stalking Women Without Their Knowledge, It’s A Wake-Up Call About Facebook Privacy [Update]

“‘So now I know everything to know about Zoe. I know where she is. I know what she looks like, both clothed and mostly disrobed. I know her full name, her parents’ full names, her brother’s full name. I know what she likes to drink. I know where she went to school. I know what she likes and dislikes. All I need to do now is go down to the Independent, ask her if she remembers me from Stoneham High, ask her how her brother Mike is doing, buy her a frosty margarita, and start waxing eloquently about that beautiful summer I spent in Roma.'”

“Girls Around Me” is a geolocation app that determines where a user is via a smartphone’s GPS system and displays to the user all of the women (or men) in their immediate area, on a map, with links to the wealth of publicly-available information from each person’s various social media networks.

Specifically, the app pulls from Facebook, Google Maps and FourSquare. We’ve all heard of Facebook and Google Maps, but FourSquare is a little less famous. For those who haven’t run across it yet, FourSquare is a location-based social networking site that allows users to “check in” at various locations and share that check-in with their friends, while leaving tips, notes, photos, and more on their location. Facebook’s Places check-in system is based in large on FourSquare.

As Brownlee states in his article, this particular app, although creepy, isn’t so much the problem. There are several geolocation apps that work in a similar fashion. The real problem here is that so much information is so freely available in the first place.

One of the main reasons so much information is available is that more often than not, people don’t pay enough attention to their social media privacy settings, or they set them once and never look at them again. This frequently leaves users broadcasting way more information about themselves than they may have intended. It doesn’t help that some social media networks make navigating their privacy settings a full-on nightmare (*coughFacebookcough*), or change their settings frequently without alerting users to the changes (*coughFacebookcough*).

Today is a great day to start fixing that problem. To that end, here’s a series of fantastic guides to help you nail down your privacy setting across various social networks, and help you ensure you’re only sharing the information you intended to share.

Ten or fifteen minutes with these guides will have your information safely locked down as tight as possible, but these aren’t the only things you should watch. Remember also to watch what kind of permissions go along with the apps you download and install to your smartphone. ComputerWorld reported last year that 20% of Android apps accessed private or sensitive information on users’ phones, and that Apple’s iOS apps were sending more personal information out to third parties on a per app basis than Android’s were. Finally, keep an eye on what kind of permissions Facebook’s apps are asking you for, too. Many of those apps are gathering a lot more data about you – and your friends – than you might realize.

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