Girls Around Me – a wake-up call

It’s been a week of controversy around cyber-snooping.   First the Government announced draft plans to extend its online surveillance powers, and then Russian app developer i-Free was forced to withdraw its Girls Around Me app following a media outcry.

The app, which was downloaded 70,000 times before being voluntarily withdrawn, is a tool which uses Facebook and Foursquare information to track women nearby.   With public profiles and check-in information combined, it allows the user to see women’s names, photos, geographical location and much more besides, all without their consent.

The thumbnail images on the site are predictably of women scantily dressed and the app states: “In the mood for love, or just a one night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control!” So far, so offensive.

There has been a landslide of comment about the app, mostly looking at issues around privacy, data, and how much information we should share online.   There has also been a lot of comment about why is this a big deal?  What would a person possessing that information actually do? Would they run to the nearest bar and chat-up a girl using their personal details as a start to the conversation? In reality probably not, but we can’t be sure.

As Sarah Jacobsson Purewal at PCWorld says “it’s hard to see this app as a real threat to privacy or women.”   Rather, she says, it’s “a wake-up call to those who publicly overshare.”

This seems to be true, but there are deeper issues here than just those around data, privacy and sharing too much information about yourself.   Gender politics and old fashioned sexism are also central to this debate.

This article by Nathan Jurgenson brilliantly sums-up the gender and cultural contexts that have been largely ignored.   App developers would do well to read this and think twice before their next data mash-up.

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