/ Technology

The creepy app ‘Girls around me’ is a privacy wake-up call

How much do you know about social network privacy settings? It’s a question that’s regularly asked, but one that might take a quick wake-up call to really understand. The app ‘Girls around me’ gives just that call…

Picture the scene: you’re in a bar, chatting to some of your friends, and a man walks over to talk to you. He seems very friendly, and knows a lot about you – where you went to school, where you last went on holiday, even your birthday.

‘Do I know you?’ you might ask.

‘Oh no,’ he replies, ‘We’ve never met. I was just browsing your Facebook profile while I was walking past, and thought you sounded nice. So I came in for a chat.’

Every breath you take…

I’m the first to admit that it’s flattering to be chatted up. But for someone to seek out knowledge of you online before approaching – isn’t that taking it way too far? Luckily nothing like this has happened to me, but an app called ‘Girls around me’ – downloaded by 70,000 people – facilitated just this kind of chat-up line.

Seemingly targeted at the ‘pick-up artist’ crowd (men who pick up women as a hobby), the app pulled publicly available information from Facebook and Foursquare to show users where the nearest women were. It would direct them to their Facebook page where they could browse all of the open information.

Every move you make…

Now, you might say there’s plenty of publicly available information about people online – a quick Google search of your name might turn up things you’ve forgotten you ever said on the internet. But the fascinating thing about this app is that it shows exactly how easy it is to collate this info (including your exact location) and put it into the hands of complete strangers.

When we asked the public about their use of social networks, 19% of Facebook users told us they had never changed their profile’s privacy settings. Some maybe don’t know the tools are there, others maybe don’t care – and others may actively choose to be ‘public’

Our resident privacy expert, Georgina Nelson, commented on the app:

‘It would be hard for anyone to argue that the girls featured on this app had agreed for their data to be used in this way. Even if they had read all of Foursquare’s and Facebook’s terms (the latter coming in at around the same number of words as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) this use would never have been foreseen or made explicit.

‘Shouldn’t there be some sort of responsibility on the part of these household names who have made a fortune out of our data to protect it and not allow this misuse in the first place?’

After the furore that the app has caused, Foursquare relinquished the app’s API access, meaning that it can no longer function properly. Shortly afterwards, the app’s creator pulled it from the iTunes Store.

However, although this particular app is no longer available, all of the information it accessed is still out there. The journalist John Brownlee explained that this is ‘an app you should download to teach the people you care about that privacy issues are real’. And what a teaching aid it is.

I’ll be watching you

To be honest, there may be some who scoff at my surprise – I genuinely didn’t realise how much data it was possible to combine. If someone leaves their Facebook and Foursquare settings relatively open, a stranger could quickly discover the names of their family members, see pictures of them on the beach on their holidays, maybe even get their mobile number.

Are you, like me, surprised that services like this exist? Do you think we’ll see similar privacy ‘wake-up calls’ in the near future?

Sophie Gilbert says:
8 April 2012

“Social network privacy settings” is an oxymoron. Use social networks at your peril?

I agree, Sophie. Which? Conversation alerted me to problems with Facebook. I have looked at other sources of information and it’s rather worrying. We need one or two good TV documentaries to make everyone aware of the problem.

Dean says:
9 April 2012

Surely Facebook must realise this kind of ap is open to abuse, it is scary to think that in a few years when my daughter is a little older some creep could come up to her in a cafe and say “hey, we met at Dan’s party last Saturday”

Thanks for the eye opener Sophie, I’ll be having a chat with my daughter.

I’m not sure where I stand on the Tv doc though. Yes, it’s great to warn vulnerable people but how many more ap downloads would occur as a result.



Running a programme about the risk of burglary will undoubtedly encourage more crime, but hopefully it will do a lot more to make householders aware of risks and do something about making their homes more secure.

Hopefully it will not be long before dodgy apps such as this are withdrawn.

For me, it’s the ‘intent’ behind an app like this that’s so inherently creepy.

I’m involved with a range of social networks and, for the most part, am up-to-speed with issues surrounding privacy settings. However, I was recently caught out when I discovered my music app was sharing what I listened to with my Facebook friends as a ‘default’ setting that I didn’t even know existed.

Which I think brings us to the crux of the problem; the large majority of people don’t know how ‘public’ their data really is thanks to over-complicated privacy settings and the task of educating them is simply enormous. Apps like this, however unpleasant, may at least help to open a few peoples’ eyes to this issue.

Lorraine Antwis says:
28 May 2012

I think this whole privacy issue is disturbing! Maybe the minimum age should be increased straight away to protect young people from “groomers”? Many women experience stalking and intrusion (sometimes with violence): public access to personal information should be restricted. You wouldn`t leave your doors unlocked and let just anyone in your house, would you? Or your 12 13 year old childs bedroom?

Ben says:
9 August 2012

These applications are disturbing and you’d have hoped would have never happen just because people should be better than this.

However public data in general is a good thing. Private data is a misnomer in that it’s only really private for those without the money or contacts to get hold of it. Companies have been selling everything about you for years, mostly to advertisers, and so it really isn’t that hard to get hold of the supposedly ‘private’ data.

Surely this more recent publication of everyone’s data is a much better situation. All we are really lacking is informing people that everything about them is public and they need to be aware of this.