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robme1.jpg“The rate at which technology develops allows us to do more amazing stuff every day. It’s important to reconsider basic things like privacy at the same pace.”

—(Borsboom, Groenveld, and van Amstel. 2010)

This article is not about Abbey Hoffman’s egalitarian Robin hoodlinism nor Colton Harris-Moore’s Catch Me-If-You-Can act. Hoffman’s "Steal this Book" actualized a counterculture manifesto through a “help yourself” ethos that fathered the self-help books of the next decade. Colton Harris-Moore, a.k.a. “The Barefoot Bandit,” burgled over a hundred homes in the Pacific Northwest before he escaped to the Bahamas’s in a stolen plane—when he was only nineteen years old. Now, with the advent of PleaseRobMe.com, “Burglars it seems," observed MG Siegler of Techcrunch.com, “have their own location-based social network.":

The site automatically scans Twitter feeds to find location check-ins that are being tweeted out. It then shows them in this stream and also pins the person on Twitter with a message like:

Hi @NAME. Did you know the whole world can see your location through Twitter? #pleaserobme.com

You can also use the filter on the top of the site to show when specific people aren’t home (by their Twitter name), or sort by location.

CNET News’ Carline McCarthy writes that PleaseRobMe.com “consists exclusively of an aggregation of public Twitter messages that have been pushed through fast-growing location-based networking site Foursquare, one of a handful of services that encourage people to share their whereabouts with their friends.” If you use services such as Foursquare, Brightkite, Google Buzz, Gowalla, Loopt, Yelp and others, be aware. What little privacy you have may have left – your exact position in space and time – could be at risk. This personal right is known as locational privacy.

cdt_logo.pngIn a guest blog on the Center for Democracy and Technology site, PleaseRobMe.com founders Frank Groenveld, Barry Borsboom and Boy van Amstel wrote that:

Oversharing might result in more risk and unintended consequence than on might think, especially in the long run. If you’re comfortable being a human homing beacon, that’s fine, we just want you to be fully aware of what that means and the potential risk it might involve.

Andrew Blumberg and Peter Eckersly outline the issue in a report titled "On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever," downloadable from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Locational privacy is the ability of an individual to move in public space with the expectation that under normal circumstances their locations will not be systematically and secretly recorded for later use. The systems…have the potential to strip away locational privacy from individuals, making it possible for others to ask (and answer) the following sorts of questions by consulting the location database:

  • Did you go to an anti-war rally on Tuesday?
  • A small meeting to plan the rally the week before?
  • At the house of one “Bob Jackson?”
  • Did you walk into an abortion clinic?
  • Did you see an AIDS counselor?
  • Have you been checking into a motel at lunchtimes?
  • Why was your secretary with you?
  • Did you skip lunch to pitch a new invention to a VC? Which one?
  • Were you the person who anonymously tipped off safety regulators about the rusty machines?

This information is quietly collected by ubiquitous devices and applications, and available for analysis to many parties who can query, buy or subpoena it. It is this transformation to a regime in which information about your location is collected pervasively, silently, and cheaply that we’re worried about. What urgently needs to change is that these systems need to be built with privacy as part of their original design. We can’t afford to have pervasive surveillance technology built into our electronic civic infrastructure.

eff.gifConsidering the value of ubiquitous mobile connectivity, some consumers may be willing to wear electronic bracelets if they are sufficiently rewarded with cool apps and services. And why should we mind? After all, we’re law-abiding citizens, right? We’ve got nothing to worry about. In fact, Blumberg and Eckerdly argue that:

One answer to this concern is a reminder that there are more subtle reasons for needing privacy. It’s not just the government, or law enforcement, or political enemies you might want to be protected from.

  • Your employer doesn’t need to know things about whether, when and where you went to church.
  • Your co-workers don’t need to know how late your work or where you shop.
  • Your sister’s ex-boyfriend doesn’t need to know how often she spends the night at her new boyfriend’s apartment.
  • Your corporate competitors don’t need to know who your salespeople are talking to.

They conclude that “locational privacy is about maintaining dignity and confidence as you move through the world. Locational privacy is also about knowing when other people know things about you, and being able to tell when they are making decisions based on those facts.”

Reputation.comFor now, the Twitter feed on PleaseRobMe.com is suspended and the site’s founders have re-stated their goal as “raising awareness of over-sharing.” If you yourself are an “oversharer,” you may want to take a look at Reputation.com. They state that:

The growth of the Internet has made managing your online reputation online a necessity. When it comes to information about people, the Internet and search engines often call up information that is private, untrue, or out of context.

While knowing a person’s exact position in both space and time might impress Heisenberg, it has me wondering what other basic privacy rights we will be asked to trade tomorrow. As it is I can only caution: Cyberspace Emptor.<>