identity theft

Dangerous Social Networking Games

I'm not quite sure where I stand on the phenomenon of location-aware applications. (I'm sure you've noticed that Foursquare is the hot one at the moment.) I find geo-tagging interesting; it's the sort of thing that I want to use to build pre- and post-apocalyptic fantasies. But marking a spot with useful or neat info, and letting others know you were there, is different from letting people know exactly where you are now. Well, I think so anyway. I see the value of letting friends or acquaintances know where you are at a given time: you can increase the likelihood of "chance" rendez-vous, and it adds an element of hyper-modern fun or adventure to our hyper-tech lives. It tries to put the social back in social networking.

I think of location-awareness as a sort of antidote to the separation that social networking brings on, whether it actually works or not. I've mentioned before that I now spend far more time at my computer than ever before, which, besides its other effects, makes me feel like I'm missing out on being social, even when I'm engaging in conversations on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other forum. By letting others on my networks know where I am when I do get away from the new boob tube, I can at least feel like I'm being a bit more "real" social. Well, I don't precisely do this. At least not via a specific location-aware application. Occasionally I'll mention on Twitter where I am or where I'm going (usually obliquely), and I guess I'm not sure exactly why I do that.

Anyway, at the moment, I hardly go anywhere except for home and work, so my location posts would be excessively dull!

There's a dark side to all of this sharing though. Just as identity thieves can mine social networking sites and the world wide web in general for personal information to recreate private identities and do all kinds of bad stuff, enterprising thieves might use personal location information to determine when a person is and is not at home and when she is likely to return: the perfect opportunity—practically an invitation—to steal. That's kind of the premise of Please Rob Me, a website that uses Foursquare data from Twitter to inform the world when people are away from their homes, and thus supposedly when those homes are ripe for a'robbin'. (Really, their goal is "to raise some awareness on this issue [of privacy] and have people think about how they use services like Foursquare, Brightkite, Google Buzz etc. Because everybody can get this information.")

I'm not an alarmist when it comes to this sort of thing, but I do believe that identity thieves are out there, and I'm sure that somewhere someone is in fact nefariously collecting information on social networkers' whereabouts. I don't think those are necessarily reasons to stop using Twitter or foursquare; just think smart and be safe, okay?

On the other hand, I think Blippy is one of the worst things I've ever heard of. The site updates your status, like Twitter, with every purchase you make on your credit card. And sane people volunteer to share this information with the world. This seems to me to a shockingly shallow intentional expression of private information. (And I'm not going to provide a hyperlink, because I don't think you should bother visiting the site.) People used to say that Twitter was narcissistic, but Blippy has no other purpose than to gloat over one's consumption. There's little more narcissistic than that. Barbara Kiviat writes in Time Magazine that the idea of posting every credit card purchase might shame people into spending less, but one of the website's co-founders, Philip Kaplan, points to an opposite trend: spending more so that the world knows all the cool stuff you're buying and doing. Kiviat herself finds the urge to spend more rising within her after using Blippy for a while. Ugh!

When we look at social networking tools in isolation, it's difficult to see the harm that they might cause, but these tools don't exist in isolation, especially not now. I think it should be clear enough that releasing important private information can lead to bad things without the many warnings about doing it, but the warnings are there, and the problems will only get deeper the more information we choose to share.

Where will all of this private disclosure lead? What are the advantages? Do they outweigh the potential pitfalls? I could pretty much talk about this for hours, but I'll let you chime in for a minute...