Developer defends Girls Around Me app

Russian developer says the controversial app only used publicly available data and is being made a privacy scapegoat.

The Girls Around Me app showed the location of women near users of the app, in real time. Screenshot by CNET

The developer of a controversial Foursquare app designed to locate nearby women defended the app, saying its goals are misunderstood.

The Girls Around Me app, which used Foursquare and Facebook data to automatically pinpoint the location of specific women near users, was blocked by Foursquare after a firestorm of criticism over user privacy. The popular check-in service said the app's access to its API was shut down because it violated its policy against aggregating user data across venues.

Russian developer i-Free Innovations insisted in a statement that the app, which many blogs criticized as creepy and stalking, used publicly available information and provided the same functionality as many other apps.

"But we believe it is unethical to pick a scapegoat to talk about the privacy concerns," the company said in a statement published by The Wall Street Journal. "We see this wave of negative as a serious misunderstanding of the apps' goals, purpose, abilities and restrictions."

The company's full statement:

Girls Around Me app was designed to make geo-social exploration of popular venues easy and visual.

We follow the geo-social trend for mobile devices that is supported by numerous location sharing services, networks and apps. Many other mobile apps provide the same or more extended functionality using location data provided by APIs of major social networks, i.e. Ban.jo or Sonar.

Girls Around Me does not allow anonymous usage of the app. It is impossible to search for a particular person in this app, or track his|her location. The app just allows the user to browse the venues nearby, as if you passed by and looked in the window. The Girls Around Me user has to be registered in Foursquare and must be logged in this service to be able to see anything in Girls Around Me. The app Girls Around Me does not have access to user login and password, authentication is carried out on the social network side. Girls Around Me shows to the user only the data that is available to him or her through his or her accounts in Foursquare, and gives the user nothing more than Foursquare app can provide itself (when you browse venues around you in Foursquare, you can see how many people checked in there and you can see their profiles and photos, even contacts and social networks profile). The aim of the app is to make the usage of this data more convenient and more focused on finding popular and crowded venues.

Girls Around Me has no ability to change, limit or expand information that is available to the user through his or her account in social network. Girls Around Me does not use any self-developed or third party services to search for extra information apart from the information the users share with others. Girls Around Me does not put together data from different social networks.

The Facebook accounts shown as available to send a message are the accounts that Foursquare users make public in their profiles. Girls Around Me does not allow anonymous usage of the messaging service. We made it perfectly clear that any personal message can only be sent from the user's account in Facebook (if he or she has one), and it can be done only if messaging is allowed by privacy settings of the recipient user.

The app was out for several months already and has not been promoted in order to first to receive user feedback and address privacy concerns, if necessary. Girls Around Me was downloaded more than 70 000 times. Since the app's launch we've seen numerous positive comments from users who claimed that the app helped them to discover "hot spots" - venues that are popular among girls or boys. Since the apps launch till last Friday nobody ever raised a privacy concern because, again, it is clearly stated that Girls Around Me cannot show the user more data than social network already does.

We understand that privacy is a serious matter. We were planning to continue developing the app and limit it to showing only public places and venues. We understand that user generated data might not reflect the real public or private user space (a user can indicate his private space as public and vice versa), but we intended to bring our best effort to work on the available APIs to develop filters to limit user access only to public venues shared by other users.

We are absolutely convinced that it is good and important to educate the users to take care of their privacy and what they share publicly. But we believe it is unethical to pick a scapegoat to talk about the privacy concerns. We see this wave of negative as a serious misunderstanding of the apps' goals, purpose, abilities and restrictions. Girls Around Me does not provide any data that is unavailable to user when he uses his or her social network account, nor does it reveal any data that users did not share with others. The app was intended for facilitating discovering of great public venues nearby. The app was designed to make it easier for a user to step out of door and hang out in the city, find people with common interests and new places to go to.

We have removed the application from the iTunes Store, because the users get repetitive error message, and we feel that until we find a solution and be able to provide full service, we should restrain from acquiring new users. We shall put our best effort to support the apps existing users and address their concerns.

We are working on providing all necessary comments and data to prove our good intentions. We were (and are) making our best efforts to develop an app that fits user expectations without going beyond the restrictions of social networks.

 

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