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:
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.