Public info extremely accessible

For the London Free Press - April 16, 2012 - Read this on Canoe INFORMATION CAN BE USED IN NUMEROUS UNDESIRABLE WAYS

Social media and smartphone apps have made it easier than ever to communicate personal information to friends and family. News, photos and your location can be shared within seconds. But this also means this information is accessible to strangers like never before.

This can occur in more ways than a simple Google search or scan of a Facebook profile. The (now disabled) app Girls Around Me recently stirred up considerable controversy. The app used GPS data to find a user's location, then displayed information about people who had been in the area and checked in on foursquare, such as their interests, friends, and photos. This happened without the knowledge of those people.

As outrageous as this seems, the personal information disclosed through the app is all information the individuals themselves have posted on Facebook and foursquare and designated as public. If it's OK to access it through Facebook or foursquare, why are we so upset about accessing it through an app like Girls Around Me?

Context is the distinguishing factor. On Facebook or foursquare, most strangers who view information are somehow connected through six degrees of separation. The information is there, but not easily or readily accessible on a single-purpose consolidated basis.

On the other hand, Girls Around Me marketed itself as a tool for men "looking for love or just after a one-night stand," a sort of dating site lacking the consent or even the knowledge of the participants.

Although the information was made publicly available by the individuals in question, they never intended for it to be gathered and used in such a way. There is an element of surprise and shock at this use of public information. The fact this is even possible makes people feel vulnerable -- and while this may be legal, it seems very wrong. Social norms dictate if you are having a conversation in public, those who can hear but aren't involved will not join in, but will pretend they cannot hear you. By taking public, yet personal, information and broadcasting it through an app, Girls Around Me flies in the face of the idea of "practical obscurity."

foursquare has denied the app access to its data, making Girls Around Me effectively useless and Apple has also pulled it from the App Store. However, the privacy concerns remain. It is likely other apps and services will access similar information in the future and use it in unforeseen ways. The lesson here is that in the digital age, public information is extremely accessible and can be used in many unforeseen and undesirable ways.

If you are making an app that uses publicly available personal information, you can't just think you can use that information as you please. Consent to use personal information is contextual -- the legal concept is informed consent. And never underestimate the creepiness factor and the wrath of surprised or outraged individuals.

That can shut down a service faster than any privacy commissioner.