[24 May 2012]
Austin American-Statesman (MCT)
AUSTIN, Texas — It was a short-lived, creepy love affair.
In March, as buzz swirled around new technologies before the South by Southwest Interactive festival, one company became The One To Watch.
Thousands at SXSW installed the app “Highlight.” It uses location information captured by your cell phone to let you know about other “Highlight” users nearby you may want to meet, based on your mutual Facebook friends and interests. The app shows where each person has been on a map, allows users to send messages to each other and browse each other’s Facebook photos.
The interest lasted about as long as the festival, By the time SXSW Interactive was over, new users and tech bloggers were complaining about the app’s eye-straining logo, the way it drained phone battery life, how it didn’t lead to any real-world serendipity and how it was, in a word, “creepy.”
Laura Alter, an Austin web marketing manager at data security company AllClear ID, tried the app but said that she never spoke to anyone she saw on “Highlight.” She got tired of the battery drain and eventually shut it off.
“Waaay too creepy,” she concluded in an email, “freaking creepy, in a genius kind of way. I also felt like a stalker when someone would show up as being on my block downtown and I would look out my 8th-floor window to see if I could find them.”
“Highlight” represents a bold new kind of app — one that can connect people even when they’re not actively using it. So-called “ambient” or “serendipity” social networking apps could be the next step beyond Twitter and Facebook. They could be used to help people meet others in the real world (remember that place?), in real time.
But it may take a shift in thinking because that word, “creepy,” continues to pop up.
Not helping matters: That same month, an app called “Girls Around Me” was accused of giving stalkers a handy tool to keep track of women using data from the location service Foursquare. Its web site teased, “In the mood for love, or just after a one-night stand? Girls Around Me puts you in control! Reveal the hottest nightspots, who’s in them, and how to reach them.”
The app was eventually pulled from the App Store by Russian developer i-Free after Foursquare revoked access to its data after a flurry of complaints.
What makes these kinds of apps possible? Until late April, when the blog O’Reilly Radar posted some findings about the way Apple’s iPhone continuously tracks a user’s location (and stores that data), few people knew.
But the iPhone is just one device that does this. Practically every cell phone uses “pervasive tracking,” something researchers like Andrew Blumberg have been sounding the alarm about for years.
Blumberg, an assistant professor in the University of Texas Department of Mathematics, said the way cell phone networks are built allows data about where we’ve been to be stored and then easily handed over whenever, say, law enforcement comes looking for evidence.
“It’s a very complicated thing to think about,” Blumberg said. “There’s lots of interesting uses for this and lots of bad uses. Imagine someone built a map of your location for the last two years and at each point in that two years made a best guess of what you were doing at that time. That would reveal an enormous amount of information about your life.”
For example: “It can do a pretty good job of figuring out who your friends are, where you work, if you’re having an affair and with whom, what religious practices you have and what you buy. Not just in a public space, but inferences about your private space.”
But the usefulness of apps that can, say, recommend nearby restaurants or shops based on your habits or help you meet your soulmate at a crowded club may negate worries about privacy.
Early adopters seem to be acknowledging privacy concerns with a kind of “What are ya gonna do?” resignation.
Alter said, “I have given up thinking of my life as private.” She finds these apps can be useful, but has worries. “The value of the data that is collected passively as you go through life is HUGE,” Alter said. “I don’t think people realize that entire companies are built on the buying and selling of personal information.”
Two companies working on apps to be released soon are hoping to use location technology but avoid comparisons to apps like “Girls Around Me.”
One of them is an app for singles called “GroupWink” with a twist that the company’s CEO and founder Dustin Maxey hopes will make it more useful and palatable: It’s for groups.
Rather than focus on one-to-one meetings, Maxey said, “GroupWink” will allow groups of singles going out to find other groups and request a meet-up. Only limited data would be made available before a chat is requested, including age range, a profile photo and tags like “career-oriented” or “thinker.” Only one person from each group would need to have the app installed; the rest of the data would come from Facebook. Groups could choose to check in using Google Places to let others know where they are, but otherwise how close or where another group was located would be kept private.
Well aware of the bad reception “Highlight” got, Maxey said he’s trying to make the app as safe and female-friendly as possible, even giving the app a color scheme that he thinks would appeal to women. “I have this mentality that if girls are on it, guys will be on it. That’s why we chose purple for the app.”
“GroupWink” should be out by late summer, Maxey said.
Another app, “CanWeNetwork,” will be aimed at business professionals looking to make contacts.
The app will focus on making sure users aren’t being interrupted and that both parties want to meet before any kind of virtual introduction is made, said James Sinclair, director of business development of the app’s company CanWeStudios.
“Are we accelerating serendipity or kismet? No, we are accelerating the odds of a person you meet being valuable,” Sinclair said.
The app developers will be pushing to make their products useful while avoiding the “creepy” label. And they will be far from the only ones. The underlying tech doesn’t appear to be going away.
Blumberg said that it would be costly and difficult to change the infrastructure to stop or reconfigure constant cell-phone tracking. He doesn’t think that would happen unless the government steps in, and that it’s unlikely to without public outcry on the issue.
“The technology advancement is discouraging,” Blumberg said. “We need to have a national conversation about this.”