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As individuals become more and more accustomed to sharing personal information with social networking sites, it’s easy to see how this free and easy exchange of information can be abused.

FourSquare, though entertaining and potentially useful for tips on the places around you and figuring out where your online friends are, does raise some security issues. 

I’ve been guilty of accepting friend requests from strangers without thinking about the implications of who I’m letting into my online social circle. As I check into places using FourSquare, a pattern of who I am, my tastes and most importantly, my day to day movements from one place to the next begin to draw a map of me for anyone who takes the time to look.

Check out my Twitter stream, find me on Facebook or Google and the picture becomes even more complete. Recently, Guardian journalist Leo Hickman put this to the test in his piece, “How I became a FourSquare cyberstaker.” 

There are settings within these applications that allow you to be more guarded about what gets pushed out, but the problem is that these games by their very nature reward you for sharing your experiences and the frequency of your check-ins.

Businesses are also rewarding users for repeat behaviour. The more you check into a place, the more likely you are to become Mayor of that location. In many cases, this title brings with a real-life reward; become the Mayor of Domino’s and get a free pizza once a week. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding loyal customers, I’m all for it. (Thanks Domino’s) but I feel that more needs to be done to make people aware of the potential pit-falls of putting one’s life out there. I also acknowledge that much of this is common sense, but to individuals that are new to this, it may not be so obvious.

Foursquare’s privacy policy can be found here but when you sign up, the default settings leave you open to everyone, and the sign up process does not encourage you to change your privacy settings or offer best-practice security tips.

Only by taking the time and effort to search through your settings can you make changes to protect yourself.

froursquare_default settings

Another thing to bear in mind is that like so many other social games, there is a competitive aspect which encourages people to acquire as many badges as possible.

There have been instances where people have “checked-in” to their own homes, making them a potential target for burglary or other nefarious behaviour. The privacy policy does offer a line on this, but it’s buried 12 paragraphs within the policy.

My point here is not that these applications are evil, but that in an ideal world, more should be done by their creators to encourage security and privacy. By taking a “you need to opt-in” rather than, “figure out how to opt-out” approach, people will be more aware of what their options are.

The fact is that, although social media and social gaming are not particularly new, technology is evolving at a crazy rate and we’re struggling to catch up. For my part, I agree that social gaming and social networking can be great fun and connect you with new people and places in a way that wasn’t possible not too long ago.

The danger is that as well as getting excited about the possibilities in information sharing, we may forget to consider the implications of what we’re telling the world about ourselves.

So before you decide to star in your own reality TV show with FourSquare, Facebook, Twitter, Google and all of the other social media outlets available as the broadcast mechanisms, take a step back and think about what the audience may be up to.

Eliza Dashwood

Published 27 August, 2010 by Eliza Dashwood

Eliza Dashwood is Head of Digital at Feather Brooksbank and a contributor to Econsultancy. She can also be found on Twitter and LinkedIn

2 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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Jenn Van Wyk

You have some great points. I think that we should really be aware of how we're using Foursquare and other location based social media. But I think that we forget that if someone really wants to know when I'm not home that they could watch me leave my house everyday to see what time I go to work, or even come up to my front door and ring the doorbell to see if anyone answers. If a burglar wants to target me and find out, they will. I don't think it's all on the shoulders of social media. Thanks for the thought provoking read!

about 6 years ago

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Mike McDonald

Why is the onus on the developer to prevent the user from broadcasting too much information? It's troubling that foursquare and other mobile apps like it are bearing the brunt of criticism with regards to privacy, when it should be the users' responsibility to think about what they share before they share it. This is how things have been with the Internet since long before foursquare came along.

No one is going to fault WordPress if a user creates a blog and broadcasts their home address and personal shopping habits. But someone checks in at home from foursquare and it's the developer's fault? I'm not buying it. 

Common sense should prevail in situations like these. Be cautious of what information you reveal to the world. It's a personal responsibility, not a public one. 

Besides that, I still don't see the harm in letting my friends know that I frequent a local coffee shop or checked in at a movie theater. I've heard the argument that this give would-be stalkers and prowlers an announcement that I'm not at home so please come over and rob me. Again, this falls on personal responsibility. If you are broadcasting your location to everyone and anyone, you are putting it out there for anyone to take advantage of. 

With that in mind, is there any evidence that location-based apps have been used in such a manner to actually commit a crime against someone? I'd be amazed if such a home invasion was pulled off with foursquare as the enabler. It almost seems more difficult to stalk someone and figure out when they're not at home via foursquare than it would be to just park across the street and wait until you actually see the person leave the house. 

about 6 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Great piece Eliza and some excellent points raised.

I would argue, however, that we need to take a balanced view.

On one hand, yes, there are more ways in which you can be 'stalked' online. If you're a social media junkie then someone with enough time and intent could put together quite a comprehensive picture of you and your daily habits.

For example, mesh together your Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and blog posts with the info that's already probably online - such as your postal address, job title, email addresses and so on - and you can quickly build up a rich profile.

However, not everyone is addicted to social media as, perhaps, readers of this blog ;)

Also, if someone really wants to stalk you then they've been able to for some time using good 'old fashioned methods' such as the phone book and electoral roll.

Finally, when it comes to burglary (the example often used by the media) most are opportunistic events where the baddie sees an open window or satnav left in its cradle.

So, whilst we should all be aware of the risks, we're better protected by locking down our houses than the privacy settings on Foursquare!

about 6 years ago

Rob Mclaughlin

Rob Mclaughlin, VP, Digital Analytics at Barclays

'Check-in at their own home'... You wouldn't start a fan page for your house/flat would you? People just take a while to get the point of these tools and after a while they will use or not use them appropriately.

almost 6 years ago

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