Jeff Ramone

TheUngayGuy lives in Chicago. He’s a blogger, a lover, a fighter, a cynic, a celebrity-annoyer. He blogs. He tweets. He opines.

Private Eyes Are Watching You: Twitter Oversharing and Its Bizarre Real-World Consequences

Something peculiar happened yesterday.

I was sitting in a coffee shop near work as I often do between sessions when one of the baristas sheepishly approached me. I go in there all the time, so most of them know me by face, if not by name. She said, “Are you Jeff?” I answered in the affirmative and she goes, “There’s someone on the phone for you.”

My first thought was that it must be work calling to tell me that there’s been a schedule change. AT&T has spectacularly terrible coverage and this cafe could be a dead zone. One look at my phone confirmed that I was five-bars strong and I had no missed calls. She looked as quizzical as I felt. I took the cordless phone from her and the conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Stranger: Is this Jeff?

The voice sounded hesitant and I definitely did not recognize it. I was slightly discombobulated that someone was calling me at this location, but curious and attentive.

Me: Yeah, who is this?

Stranger: This is your neighbor. Did you just check in on Foursquare?

Now before I go any further, let me just explain what Foursquare is in case you don’t know. It’s a GPS-enabled Web application that allows users to “check in” wherever they have cell phone coverage. It’s an extension of social networking media and really the only point to it seems to be showing other users the lame places you go. Depending on how you have your account set up, the app will post your global position on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or all three. My check-ins typically show up in the latter two.

I once explained Foursquare to someone, her response was: “Why would you want do this?” I thought for a second and said, “Because all my other friends are doing it?” We both laughed, but I realized that I didn’t have a real answer to that question. Why would I want to enable my smart phone as a tracking device? Like so many other of my online activities, there really is no point to it.

So back to the story, already in progress:

Me: Yeah, I did [check into Foursquare] …who is this?

Stranger: My name’s Roy, your neighbor. I just saw four black guys try to break into your apartment.

The first tip-off here, other than the fact that some stranger from is contacting me, is that he’s identifying himself as my neighbor. Like any true city dweller, I don’t know any of my neighbors. Sure, I might have names from lobby mailboxes filed away somewhere in my subconscious, but I’m pretty sure Roy isn’t one of them. I never met a Roy in my life.

Me: Uh, who is this?

The incredulity was rising in my voice and I kept expecting at any minute “Roy” would identify himself as someone I knew and that this was all a prank.

Stranger: I’m just a concerned citizen.

It was more than evident something wasn’t right here. Who the hell says things like “concerned citizen” outside of an episode of Dragnet? The hesitation in his voice seemed to grow with every question I asked and there was a faint, subtle bit of reverb, as if the conversation was being recorded.

Me: Okay, who is this?

Stranger: Aren’t you worried about the break-in?

Me: If you’re my neighbor, then where do I live?

There was a pause, more stuttering and finally he says something like:

Stranger: Let me look, I’m sure you were stupid enough to check in there too.

Me: Actually, I never check in with my real home address. Man, you sure are going through a lot of effort to be a dick.

And then he hung up. So much for being a “concerned citizen”.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “Roy” wasn’t who he claimed to be. If he thought he was being a clever thief, he failed completely. A smarter criminal would have done more research and better rehearsed his spiel.

Immediately after he hung up, I recalled a Twitter exchange I had not too long ago with a user calling himself @pleaserobme. This Twitter account (which has since been suspended “due to strange activity”) was connected to a Web site of the same name.

The folks at Please Rob Me (PRM) claim to be privacy advocates, saying that their goal is to raise awareness on the dangers associated with using sites like Foursquare, Loopt and Brightkite. By telling everyone on the World Wild Web where you are, you’re also telling them where you’re not — namely, home. You might think that PRM is well-intentioned in its quest to keep people safe, but the means by which they do it are highly questionable.

Before Twitter disabled their account, PRM would re-tweet Foursquare check-ins, seemingly at random. The tweets would look something like this:

@pleaserobme: @KirstieAlley just checked in at Krispy Kreme, 1111 Wilshire Blvd, Hollywood, CA.

With the Twitter account gone, they now have a live feed of Foursquare user tweets streaming directly on their homepage. It’s a smorgasbord for the would-be criminals PRM claims it wants to protect you from. In fact, they have a disclaimer which says “our intention is not, and never has been, to have people burgled”. But they sure have a funny way of showing it.

Their tactics aren’t the way to prevent victimization, but quite the opposite. It’s like causing a car collision to prove a point about auto safety or running a third-party candidacy for President. These all have unintentionally calamitous outcomes causing harm rather than good. I’m not really sure what the true motivations of PRM are, but whatever it is, it stinks.

Be that as it may, and I’m loathe to admit this, I think they may have driven their point home with me. I have no way of proving that “Roy The Concerned Citizen” is affiliated with PRM, but he was an effective messenger. This whole has actually made me re-think using these kinds of applications. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea to let the entire world know where I am at any given second. Other than it being used as an alibi in a criminal trial, I can’t see much real advantage to being a walking GPS unit.

Before my interaction with “Roy”, I think I had a healthy amount of cautious paranoia. I have an unlisted telephone number, I don’t make my home address available online or in print. I thought I was as private as the next guy. But the truth is, I don’t usually shred all my papers before throwing them away. The only secrets someone rooting through my trash is likely to discover is that I eat way too many Hot Pockets.

I refuse to let this situation turn me into some black helicopter-fearing, tin foil hat-wearing, irrational kook who thinks everyone is out to steal his stuff or identity. Honestly, I don’t really have much stuff worth stealing. And as far as my identity goes, I think I’d actually feel sorry for someone trying to use my Social Security Number. I doubt they’ve have any more luck with it than I have.

Like I said, I think there was something more than a poorly planned caper going on with “Roy”. There was definitely some recording taking place and I suspect I was not the first person to get a phone call like this. I wonder how many people actually fell for this bit. How many overly excitable victims, in a moment of panic, blurted out their home address to a stranger on the telephone? I suspect these are the same sorts of people who get caught up in those Nigerian email scams.

Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, recently remarked that “the age of privacy is over”. It’s an infuriating statement but it’s essentially true. In all fairness, privacy is a two-way street. No one made us join Facebook or Twitter or anything else. We willingly became the coal for these data miners.

For those of us who came of age, technologically speaking, in the Web 2.0 Era, it may be too late to cancel, delete or otherwise redact what’s out there. Basically we have to deal with cards we’ve dealt ourselves. One could argue that if you choose to live your life in public you don’t get to control what other people do with this public information. You can, however, choose how much of it to put out there.

Comments

  • March 9, 2010

    Very intrusive story!. Glad I never use those tools, as Sometimes Social networking goes a little too far.

  • March 9, 2010
    reggie

    I think you finally got the point of Please Rob Me. You need to THINK before you tweet! Not that the sheep that this “facebook era” has created will ever listen.

    Facebook was the beggining of the end of privacy. They made it acceptable (forced) to use your real name. Since then, all caution on using real names seems to have been forgotten. People and websites seem to be giving and asking for real names much more often than before facebook.

    Most people are stupid sheep, just following what they are told or what their friends do. Please Rob me is just using foursquare info. Wait till all the data on other sites starts to link up with your real name and face. Please Rob me will look mighty tame compared to that. Stupid sheep, your time is coming…

  • March 9, 2010

    That’s just plain creepy

  • March 9, 2010

    Doesn’t matter if you ever check in to foursquare at your home address–that information is public record. It never was private.

  • March 9, 2010

    It is *not* true that “privacy is over”. Privacy is different than it was before the Internet and cell phones, but that doesn’t mean that we should just throw up our hands and give up all resistance to keeping our privacy protected. “Privacy” is a gradient — we need to keep a hold on as much of it as possible.

    Like you said, people don’t *need* to share all of their information on social networking websites — and shouldn’t.

  • March 9, 2010

    I don’t use 4square but my husband does, mainly it is just annoying. Why people feel the need to notify everyone of their every movement is beyond me.

  • March 9, 2010

    Zuckerberg did say the age of privacy was over, but backtracked slightly after people made fun of the some of the pictures on his Facebook profile. He’s now set it to friends only.

    I think it is possible to have a degree of privacy on the net, even when using services such as FourSquare. PRM are obviously going about it the wrong way, but I think that people, especially children, could do with a gentle reminder that just because it’s possible to live your life in public on the internet, it isn’t necessarily a good idea.

  • March 9, 2010

    I deleted my foursquare account last week.
    People don’t need to know where I am.
    It doesn’t help my business
    It’s yet another thing that involves a device I have to charge.

    I love tech and Social media but location based stuff is just too personal for me. Sorry.

  • March 9, 2010

    I first learned about “PleaseRobMe.com” from this article by Amber Avines @WordsDoneWrite

    http://wordsdonewrite.blogspot.com/2010/03/are-your-tweets-on-pleaserobmecom.html

    The mere fact that that this info could stream as fast as any Twitter feed confirmed for me how dangerous it is. Some have created personas that are “stalker worthy”, too. It is not just what you have left behind to protect.

    Also, have to say that seeing people tweet their locations on Twitter are the most boring tweets ever if you are far away. I miss the regular tweets “sitting in a restaurant and my waitress has a mustache”, etc. ;-) Glad you’re ok, Jeff!
    x0x
    Anita @ModelSupplies

  • March 9, 2010

    Jeff –
    What a story! I stopped using Foursquare a little while ago and that was part of my issue. Not sure how you managed your Twitter and Foursquare friends lists, but I was accepting anyone who had interesting things to say on both…and then I was telling them where I was at all times. Not smart on my part for sure. But, if you took out the glaring privacy concerns, what real benefits are we getting from using these location based services? I know there are a few brands out there offering discounts, but are badges and potentially finding a friend close by worth it? Not sure yet.
    I wrote a similar post about why I am done with Foursquare for now and got a response from one of the co-founders of the service @dens. (http://bit.ly/4_Square) He purports that this is a great way to explore and experience cities…I think it is a way to build a database for marketers to advertise to. (which is good for me I guess since I am in advertising.)

  • March 9, 2010

    I think we’re at a point now we’re people are sharing too much information. I like Social Media – it’s great but like the person you mentioned in your post.. I don’t really understand the point of Foursquare and why it is needed. I can see how friends might want to know where other friends are and catch up if they’re in the area..but there’s ways of doing that with safety and privacy. I think generally it’s all getting a bit ‘big brother’ ish and the thing is, we’re doing it to ourselves. People are telling others where they are or what they’re up to without thinking about the consequences. Thankfully, most people would do the right thing, but If you’re up to no good, or want to be,it’s like being handed opportunities on a platter..

  • March 9, 2010
    Steve martin
    @idrumly

    I thought you might find this link interesting. Spark is a radio program on CBC in Canada. This page is a link to an interview with one of the creators of PleaseRobMe.

    http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2010/02/full-interview-boy-van-amstel-from-pleaserobme-com/

  • March 9, 2010

    Wow… that is pretty scary how close people can monitor your activities between Twitter, Facebook and other social sites. Best to tweet your whereabouts when others are still home.

    Great story on why everyone really need to be careful what you Tweet. Thanks for sharing your insights in this article.

  • March 10, 2010

    You’re only as safe as the information you give people. It’s foolish for people (like thieves) to think that just because you’re using services like FourSquare and checking into Starbucks, that your home is empty. Are they assuming everyone lives alone, no alarm systems, no barking dogs, no video cameras, etc?

    Is privacy dead? Our privacy has been getting nibbled away for a very long time. It became obvious to most after the Patriot Act but many of us were more than well aware we were losing it at a rapid rate.

    With regard to Zuckerberg’s statement, it’s insulting to say the least. The people who signed up for FourSquare knew going in (if they were paying attention) exactly what they were signing up for. Facebook, on the other hand, lured people in with the assumption that they’d be protected in this walled garden of privacy setting that users controlled. Then, 350 million people later, Facebook decides the age of privacy is over. Now, those 350 users have to decide which is more important – control of their privacy settings or the connections they’ve made.

    I think we are all ultimately responsible for taking measures to protect our privacy. Don’t put anything online that you don’t want to share and if the service your using changes their privacy rules and you don’t agree – leave. That’s the ONE true way to send a message.

  • March 10, 2010
    Mary

    The reason they are doing it is on this site: http://www.phonelosers.org/

    You can read about and listen to, the calls here: http://www.phonelosers.com/index.php?board=61.0

  • March 10, 2010

    I have a great system. I simply don’t own anything that anyone wants!

  • March 10, 2010

    Man that is just sick, I am going to recheck all my web sites and access points to make sure I am not giving to much out.

    Thank You.

  • March 10, 2010

    I recently found out that a foursquare user who added me as a friend had given me way more information about herself than she should have.

    I blogged about it here: http://www.moreron.com/2010/03/08/foursquare-a-stalkers-delight/

  • March 10, 2010

    I hated the idea of pleaserobme when i heard about it a few months back, it really is inviting people to become victims of crime.

    With geotagging all of our activities are becoming exposed, we do have to stay aware of where they are being tagged too? My iphone logs me back in on my geo location sometimes without me asking it too, and the idea that people can find you that are perhaps stalking you via your blog or tweets.. is creepy.

    Glad you didn’t get caught out, although you sound too smart to anyhow.

    PS: “i just saw two black guys stealing your car, can i just check where you left it?”

  • March 13, 2010

    Sound like the work of those shifty PLA people who have an entire page devoted to pranks on Foursquare users, many of them made by a guy named Roy. http://www.phonelosers.org has an article about Foursquare and a podcast with the calls.

  • March 22, 2010

    that’s for the tip, you take it for granted on who is really watching your feed. haven’t used foursquare yet but might have to think twice before i start. aloha for the tips.

  • March 28, 2010

    “Privacy is over” kind of a Scott McNealy quote there, from 10 years ago.

  • July 8, 2010
    BTLH

    “Roy” called me yesterday while at a restaurant/happy hour. The host told me I had a phone call, and Roy told me he was coming to the restaurant to have an intervention with me and my friend because we check into too many bars on FourSquare. It scared me, but I had a feeling it was more of a prank than a serious stalker. I’m most likely going to delete my FourSquare account and make my tweet private.

  • July 31, 2010

    Ya i have heard about this its really stupid that this happends. What i say on the internet shouldnt effect me in the real world unless im commiting a crime of some sorts.

  • August 28, 2010

    I’ve never given my personal info on 4s and am glad I don’5. I check in to my apt complex, but you’d have to be stalking me to know which unit I’m in, and if one is stalking me, chances are, he already knows. But who is dumb enough to rob a studio apt anyway! Engoy my dirty clothes, sucker.
    My 4s pic isn’t even of me, I don’t want to open those doors. It’s easy to keep pirvacy while using these sites, just use your head. The people that can and will hack/stalk beyond the abilities/concerns of thmaking an effort to e avg person would likely find that stuff anyway. But keep that info from everybody else is a smart idea.

  • August 29, 2010

    This makes me want to check in more accurately so that guy calls me at the coffee shop. Then I can goad him into showing up in person by talking about his mother.

    I’m not even going to get into the fact that he said it was “four black guys” breaking into the house. What a douche.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.