Spies Around Me

By Jeff Gould

Imagine the following scenario.

Sitting in a crowded bar, a red-headed bombshell casually studies a map of Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood on the screen of her iPhone. Overlaid at various spots on the map are thumbnail photos of men. Under each man’s image is the name of his employer. Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, IRS, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy… Yes. She taps the last icon and a Facebook page pops up, which she reviews for several minutes, carefully memorizing each detail. Then she lifts her head and scans the room. After a moment, she focuses briefly on someone sitting at a nearby table. She glances at her iPhone to confirm the resemblance, then puts the device away.

Anna Chapman, undercover agent of the Russian intelligence service, walks confidently toward the table flashing a killer smile and introduces herself. “Hi Jeremy. You probably don’t remember me, but we bumped into each other at that DoE conference last Spring. Do you mind if I join you?” Jeremy, in his early 30s and single, is an MIT grad whose work at DoE involves sensitive national security issues. When he updated his location at this Adams Morgan watering hole on Foursquare earlier in the evening, he was expecting to bump into some old college buddies. Now he is glad they never showed up, because he’d much rather be alone with Anna.

Think this is something that might happen in a spy novel, but not in real life? You would be wrong. Attentive readers will recognize that a real-world iPhone app was revealed last week that does exactly what the app imagined here does. The only difference is that instead of letting foreign spies track government employees, it lets guys on the prowl track girls – including girls they don’t know, providing that the victims have posted their public profile photos on Facebook and use the Foursquare social networking app to “check in” to the venues they frequent. The app is called Girls Around Me, and it was created, perhaps by coincidence (or perhaps not), by a Russian developer called i-Free. It works by pulling data from publicly accessible profiles on Facebook and then connecting to Foursquare’s API (for a detailed analysis, with screen shots and examples, see this article from the web site Cult of Mac). Or at least it did work that way, because Foursquare shut down i-Free’s API access last week, and the app was subsequently pulled from Apple’s App Store.

So for now this app is dead. But nothing says it or something similar won’t come back. After all, the fact that Foursquare and Facebook make this kind of creepy targeting of individuals possible at all is no accident. On the contrary, persuading people to relinquish their privacy in order to make them easier for advertisers to target is the core strategy of those firms, and of many others like them.

The intersection between users whose work makes them potential targets of espionage and web sites whose business models encourage users to expose themselves to scrutiny by strangers is a danger zone. Employees with access to sensitive information who also venture out onto the ad-driven consumer web (and who doesn’t?), beware.

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