Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Location BS - A Safer Internet is Up To You

As I've said many times (on this blog, and other places too...often to bored faces at parties - oh how I drone on...), I think it's strange (strange in the least, possibly just plain crazy) that people feel the need to systematically document their entire lives on the internet. I don't want to venture into the minutia of the sociological causes/impact of this, not to mention the fact that people are posting things that, in hindsight, they might not want open to the entire world. Nevertheless, my calls for sanity and reason are being treated with the same disregard as all of my other rantings and ravings. That being said, I don't want to scare you, but at least one aspect of our compulsive documentation may be putting us at real danger.

I am discussing, of course, location based services (LBS). LBS's like Foursquare or even features on Facebook and Twitter and Yelp are awesome. They help us find out what our friends are doing, and in turn let us know of some cool ideas for stuff to do.

A site like Foursquare, for example, allows people to "check in" at their favorite restaurants, bars and clubs, parks, museums get the idea. Foursquare, in an innovative move, added two important aspects to their LBS. Firstly, users get ranked based on how often they use the service, in particular, striving to "check in" from specific locations more than anybody else to become "mayor" of that place. They add to this inclusion of a game like nature to the site by also offering users "badges" for consistent and extraordinary use. By the way,  Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley recently discussed the infancy of the "mayor" idea and how it almost didn't make it into the site - it is, in fact, one of their most popular and innovative features. 

The second incredibly smart thing they do is allow businesses to offer freebies and other coupons to repeat users or "mayors." Already with the support of the core group of social internet users who want to say where they are, along with the wholhearted support businesses, Foursquare is the leader in the field.

In response to the popularity of Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp (and probably every other social network out there) have developed their own location services.

This all sounds great.  However, a few people (myself included) have noticed some serious safety concerns with posting where we are, while we are there. It's one thing to, after the fact, say, "I had a great time at this restaurant or at this party." (I'm not sure if we really need to be letting everybody know what a great time we all had at all of our prior parties...I guess my distaste of the more frivolous social networking is well documented at this point, I probably don't have to issue an aside every time I get frustrated...and yet, I do.)

It is indeed completely different if you instead post on Facebook before/during an event.  People you may not completely trust can see that you just checked in at a movie theater (that includes friends of friends who can see other people's status updates through the "comments" and "like" features on Facebook). They know that your home will be empty for a few hours...and you can take it from there.

The really scary thing to me is that the more you update your location, the greater the risk. If a criminal is able to really define and predict your patterns, they can be as-sure-as-possible that you won't be around while they steal your TV, computer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Complete Series Box Set (the last of which might be a blessing in disguise).

I'm really not trying to scare anyone, or cause undue anxiety...I just want reiterate a thesis which has become central to all of my thoughts on internet culture: Our actions have effects, whether you can see them or not. Everything we do and say on the web is recorded for ever, sometimes the effects of this may take years to come to fruition...or a smart cyber-criminal can scour Facebook for all location updates and figure out which homes are empty, and 'jack' your stuff right now. 

Pundits and internet gurus are always discussing web safety, information harvesting and striking the balance between a safe internet and an open one, but the general public misses one of the most important points about how to stay safe on the web.  You can only be harmed by what you put on the web.  Please be watchful of  what you post and try and think about it for a few extra seconds before you hit the button.