Yesterday, a new computer tool cropped up in the information stream. Creepy is a geolocation information aggregator that allows you to gather location data about people from the information shared on social networking and image services. If this disturbs you, the developer will be pleased.
The information is placed on a map inside the application—which at present is available on Linux and Windows (Mac OSX is coming)—to provide context for a person’s online activity. The data is drawn from social networking services Twitter and Foursquare (through information announced on Twitter), as well as a dozen image hosting services, including Flickr, Twitpic, yFrog and moby. The application was actually released almost two months ago, but it has taken this long to get on the radar of tech blogs.
Like PleaseRobMe and ICanStalkYou before it, Creepy exists to make a statement about sharing location intentionally and through EXIF data. Developer Yiannis Kakavas says this isn’t a tool for stalkers; it’s for self-awareness:
Just to be clear, the intention behind creating creepy was not to help stalkers or promote/endorse stalking. It was to show exactly how easy it is to aggregate geolocation information and make you think twice next time you opt-in for geolocation features in twitter, or hitting “allow” in the “this application wants to use your current location” dialog on your iphone.
Source: Creepy FAQ
Kakavas is a graduate student at Department of Computer and Systems Sciences studying security. In his blog, Kakavas links to instructions on how to disable location reporting in smartphones and on Twitter.
Is Sharing Location a Bad Thing?
Mike Melanson of Read/Write/Web acknowledged that location sharing isn’t for everyone, but it does have benefits that outweigh the risks for those who do:
I share my location all the time and for a number of reasons. It enables random and serendipitous connections to occur. I can look back and have all sorts of contextual information as I weave my way through the world. I can plug it all in to services like MemoLane and get a time-ordered snapshot of my own life, as I share it online. And in turn, it gets fed through algorithms and stuffed into features like Foursquare’s latest recommendation service, which looks at where I’ve been and suggests where I may want to go next. And that’s just the first step for what can be done with all of this location information.
Melanson also argues that public location sharing makes it easier to evaluate new places, like coffee shops, based on in-the-moment popularity as well as customer reactions. These tidbits of shared information aggregate in our brains as well, motivating us into relationships with our community.
My own response to location has been mixed. When Twitter initially added support for geolocating individual tweets, I figured I wouldn’t activate that. While I haven’t experienced any direct benefit from finally doing so, my motivation to change my mind was the hope that localized trends—things being mentioned in Bloomington, Indiana—would benefit from myself and others flipping that switch.
Similarly, I signed up for Foursquare and Gowalla before I had a smartphone, which made participation from a clamshell cell phone extremely difficult. I stopped trying after Jim Bumgardner posted this great blog on becoming Mayor of the North Pole, due to the unreliability of the data that undercut the game driving the interaction on those sites. I picked it up again, though, after my wife bought me an iPhone and the barriers to participation were lowered. I do make a conscious decision not to link Foursquare to Twitter, though, but because I think it’s tacky and noisy, not insecure to do so.
Just like the dystopian cries that television makes us violent and the internet makes us lonely, critics of location sharing presume that sharing where you are creates a culture of stalkers.
The definition of stalking varies from state to state but most would agree it is a willful, malicious, and repeated following and harassing of another person that threatens his or her safety. According to a 1998 survey by National Violence Against Women, 8% of women and 2% of men reported stalking incidents. Less than half of those include threats of violence, and most are motivated by anger. Most importantly, most stalking occurs between people who know each other, not strangers. Women, in particular, are most likely to be stalked by a former partner in an intimate relationship.
More recent data claims 3.4 million Americans have been stalked. That’s a lot, but just 1% of the population. Stalking can be a serious disruption and can become a life-threatening situation for some, but there isn’t evidence that it is any more likely to occur now than it did prior to the Internet Age.
The flipside to the unwanted access to your location data is that the record is also available to people you do want to have it. This includes law enforcement officials, should stalking actually occur, who can use the digital footprint as evidence. It would make sense, too, that those who would opt to use information available to Creepy would also be sharing that information online. Having your friends know where you are can be a huge benefit, as well, and you are significantly more likely to have friends than stalkers.
Creepy may prove to be an interesting reflective tool, both in the way Kakavas intended—to get people to be intentional about their decision to share location information—and in taking a look at where you’ve been. I still contend that the next important wave of online tools will be ones that allow for personal and communal reflection. All this data we are assembling over time is going to reveal interesting things about ourselves in ways we just can’t see with our daily lenses on. That won’t happen without being willing to put yourself into the world and let your activities leave a mark.