If You Protect Women From Their Own Online Personas, the Creeps WinS

"Girls Around Me," the application that allowed users to view the location of women on a map and their publicly available Facebook data with pictures until Foursquare cut off access after a storm of media criticism, has brought internet privacy and the concept of consumer "vulnerability" to the forefront of everyone's mind. And it's interesting to note how the tone differs when the consumers in question aren't predominately female.

It's important to look at these apps that share personal data. But when the privacy of the general public is at stake, their information is being used to "attract advertisers, app makers and other business opportunities." When it's women, they're being "spied" upon, and the issue becomes less businesslike and more personal. Women are chastised for putting themselves out there to begin with, and app makers are excoriated for being "creepy."

"Girls around Me" first received attention when Cult of Mac blogger John Brownlee wrote about his female friends' "sick and horrified" reactions upon learning how their public virtual information could be used by strangers. "How can Apple let people download an app like this?" asked one woman, moved to the point of tears. (Brownlee didn't specify whether she clutched a handkerchief to her bosom as she fell, swooning, to the ground.) Foursquare quickly responded by pulling the program's API access to Foursquare data, and by Saturday evening the iOS App Store no longer offered the app. Some applauded the sites for acting quickly. But others took issue with the presumption that underlies these shitstorms: that women would never share public information about themselves online of their own volition.

"I've made a choice to participate publicly in the internet," wrote Marie Connelly, whose photo was included in Brownlee's post as an example of a woman whom he assumed had allowed her information to be tracked by the app out of "ignorance, apathy or laziness." "The whole tenor of this [is that] if you are in this app, if you have been posting information publicly, especially if you're a woman, you're doing something wrong. Shut it down, ladies –- someone on the internet might see you." Forbes' Kashmir Hill, who called the backlash "rife with overly-aggressive privacy protectionism," referred to a recent Pew study that found women are actually savvier than men when it comes to privacy settings. "Sometimes we can be found because we want to be found," Hill wrote. "I think apps like ‘Girls Around Me' are the future."

If You Protect Women From Their Own Online Personas, the Creeps WinS

Apps like "Girls Around Me" aren't the future — they're available right here and now, as Laptop and the Wall Street Journal are reporting, and they've been available for quite some time. We spent a mere 15 minutes browsing through the Apple Store and found two apps similar to "Girls Around Me," both called "Girl Finder." "Tired of ending up at bars that look like sausage feasts?" asks one of them. The app aggregates data "24/7" from several popular social networking sites, including Yelp, to help people "get real-time updates of girls around town." But don't waste your money on this $6.99 app, because it sure didn't work for us — though the app said it was "calibrating estrogen parameters" and "aggregating skirt bearings," it never actually found us any chicks, hot or otherwise.

Then there's a free, more simplified "Girl Finder" app, with a description that gets right to the point: "Based on Foursquare data: provide places where girls are currently tagged. Direct link to their Foursquare profile." In case you were unclear that you were "spying" on these women, you click on a pair of binoculars to begin your search. I learned that Tash, Ekaterina, Allison, and Britney were hanging out at a park near me.

Those apps may seem small-time, as did "Girls Around Me." But then there's Yoke, a new, much-hyped social media dating site that's backed by a $500,000 seed round; popular websites like TechCrunch are proclaiming it to be "awesome." Yoke matches you with friends of Facebook friends who don't necessarily need to be Yoke users to appear instantly for your perusal. The site uses public information, such as your Facebook likes and listening activity, Netflix account, and Amazon preferences, even if you didn't sign up for the service, yet no one's calling it "creepy" — why's that? And who knows what's going to happen now that Facebook bought Instagram, which makes all of its photos public by default?

"As long as there are thousands of applications being produced using data from Foursquare, Twitter, and Facebook, it is going to be very, very hard to keep these kinds of contextual privacy violations from occurring," The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal believes. "Social app developers, almost by definition, are supposed to come up with new uses — undreamed-of uses — for people's personal data." Some of these undreamed-of uses might "creep" us out. But others will be helpful and — dare we say it — fun. Shouldn't women get the chance to join in? We can fret over every new misogynistic app, or we learn how to use our privacy settings.

I understand why some women feel violated by "Girls Around Me," and I can see how telling women to be smart about their digital footprint could be construed as victim blaming. But it's worse to treat women the way Brownlee insinuated: too ignorant or lazy to figure out how the internet works. By equating a lack of virtual savvy with "being taken advantage of," we imply that technology is too complicated for women to understand — and that if they did understand it, they would never experiment.

"I don't believe that having a public persona online needs to be a risky enterprise, and it seems like plenty of people are able to manage that without being attacked, stalked, or otherwise targeted," Connelly wrote. "If we're saying that's only true for one half of the population, then I don't think this is really a conversation about internet privacy as much as it's a conversation about whether it's safe to be a woman and live in public." No one deserves to be cyber-stalked for putting information about themselves online, but it's also up to the individual to shape and control her online identity. When it comes to these apps, diminishing a woman's agency isn't doing her any favors.

Image by Jim Cooke. Source images via YKh and OzZon/Shutterstock