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Geo-based Social Apps: expanding your networks or threatening your privacy?

As smartphones become more and more widely-used, the function of a cellphone is no longer just calling and texting. Many smartphone social networking applications, such as Foursquare, Path and Installgram, provide services based on the user’s current location and let the users interact with people who are close to them. Therefore, the user’s social networks are no longer limited by his families, friends and acquaintances, but can spread to people whom the user has never heard of, but stay in the same Starbucks, study in the same library or watch the same concert with the user. These apps indeed broaden users’ networks and build local bridges among the people who have never heard of each other before. However, an app named “Girls Around Me” sounds the alarm among the smartphone users because these location-based social apps also have their downsides, threatening users’ privacy and making the mobile social networks insecure.

In the blog, Christina DesMarais discusses this controversial IOS application released in March this year. It takes the user’s location and then finds any girls (or boys, but not by default) that are geographically close to the user through Foursquare and Facebook’s location APIs. Then the app will pull out a Google map with Facebook profile pictures pinned on it. Clicking the picture lets the user see more information about the person (again pulled from Facebook). Although DesMarais emphasizes that the girls whose privacy and security are threatened by this app do not voluntarily share their information on “Girls Around Me,” she also points out that this privacy issue can be avoided by limiting the exposure of personal information online. Although Apple Store and the API providers react quickly to this creepy app, the potential danger of this kind of location-based social application still exists. Sharing some personal information on social network apps are not scary and this is what people have been doing since the online social community emerged a couple decades ago. However, when the online networks become local, the exposure of personal information is more dangerous, because your information is not viewed by strangers who live thousands miles away from you and have no means to see you in person, but tracked by someone who may sit next to you and you have no idea that you are being watched. This one-direction relation in a network puts the person, who is involuntarily connected with other people by the app, in an unfair trade – all of her information is collected by someone who sits next to her and she is totally unaware of it. DesMarais makes a clear argument that it is very unlikely that this kind of apps will be completely swept away, and the best response to this privacy threat is to share less personal information online. This action will definitely influence people’s online social experience and it is indeed a very passive response, but it also eliminates potential privacy issues and it is the best way to cut off this single-direction relation in a network.

In “Networks, Crowds and Markets,” the authors point out that “individuals will generally have strong expectations of privacy, not necessarily even appreciating how easily one can reconstruct details of their behavior from the digital traces they leave behind when communicating by e-mail, instant messaging, or phone.” (p42) However, by using the geo-based apps, it becomes much easier to stalk a person’s daily activities. Indeed, geo-based apps build local bridge among people and allow people get to know their neighbors, colleagues, classmates and anyone who is geographically close to them. However, these bridges sometimes are one-way bridges that transport one’s online information to the other side of the bridge in a second without telling the information owner. The total number of U.S. smartphone users currently is nearly  is over 100 million and this number is rapidly growing. Therefore, as geo-based social apps have impact on more and more people, it is important to let the users be aware of the dark side of these social apps when they make new friends who live a block away through geo-based social apps.






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