Not Getting It: Men, Women, and ‘Stalk Your Friends’ Apps

In recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of location-based services on mobile devices. From those that allow you to update with your location, to those dependent on location, to those that quietly log location data, they’re everywhere. If you use a smartphone, information about your location is readily accessible to a number of applications that have access to your phone, and their owners can use that data in a variety of ways, some of which you may actually be uncomfortable with, but you’re willing to deal with in exchange for the convenience of an application.

There’s a particular growth of ‘Stalk Your Friends’ applications and variants thereof. Using a variety of location data, user updates, and other materials, these applications collate information for their users, and it’s not on an opt-in basis. Which means that you can track people with a high degree of accuracy across multiple applications and locations, using these applications without their knowledge.

Some privacy advocates are understandably concerned about the potentials for abuses here, and women in particular are worried because there’s a significant safety component here too.

I’m one of those people who splits the divide in terms of providing information about my location; I don’t use public geolocation services, but I don’t hide where I am, either. I’ll often post a picture on Instagram (@sesmithwrites for anyone who cares to follow me!) that can reveal that I’m at, say, the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, or the courthouse in Ukiah, or some other obvious public landmark. Or I’ll be Tweeting from a restaurant or event, letting people know that’s where I am. That information is public, and someone dedicated could, say, track me across a trip to San Francisco to see where I go and who I spend time with.

I’m making a conscious choice to share that information, but I’m also making a conscious choice to obscure or actively conceal other location data for safety and privacy reasons. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of information being assembled to make that data available to other people through an application I cannot control, even though I’m aware it’s possible, and there are no specific legal restrictions on it.

Because, you see, sometimes I don’t want to be stalked by my ‘friends.’ As a moderately public figure, I’m often in the position of having to say no to people who want to meet me, or want other things from me. It’s not nearly on the scale of an actual celebrity, but it’s still enough of a problem that I consider it when traveling to more populated areas; for example, I’m not going to tell people where I’m dining out in Chicago because I don’t want people showing up there. Likewise, I’m not going to provide information about where I’m staying in another city, again, because I want privacy. Most of these people are lovely and splendid people, but boundaries are important, and I need to have them respected. Since I can’t necessarily trust fans with always respecting those boundaries when I’m viewed as part of the public commons, I need to take reasonable precautions to protect myself and the people I may be with.

But it’s not really them I’m worried about. I’m worried about the people who send me death and rape threats, who suggest they’d like to see me beaten to a pulp, the people who graphically describe things they wish would happen to me, my family members, my friends, and my fans. Those people are the ones I don’t want using a ‘Stalk Your Friends’ app to track me down, because that’s a case where ‘stalking’ isn’t just a funny catchprase used to sell an app. It’s actually a very serious, very real, and potentially very dangerous thing.

In conversations about the rise of such apps, I’ve been noticing a very stark gender divide. A lot of men pontificate on how they don’t think it’s a problem, and many of them are techies. They point out that a lot of this data is collectible in other ways, both directly through user-controlled updates and indirectly through application data. They argue that people have no trouble handing over location information to corporations, so they shouldn’t mind having it harvested for such applications. The gist of the argument is that it’s going to happen anyway and is already happening, so people shouldn’t object to it.

Such statements betray an extreme lack of understanding about what it is like to live as a woman or someone read as a woman in this society. For many of us, these kinds of applications present a direct threat, and have the potential to force us to either give up modes of communication or directly curtail our activities to protect ourselves. One might argue that a smartphone is hardly a life necessity, except that increasingly, they’re critical. Many people are expected to carry them for work, and can get in trouble if they don’t have their phones with them. Others basically need to in order to remain employed or to manage their careers; as a freelancer, for example, I cannot afford to be away from my phone for very long.

And we shouldn’t be told to avoid being potentially attacked by limiting our activities, or to suck it up because this information is already out there. Instead, people should be discussing the uses and abuses of location data, and challenging the ubiquity of access to location data in apps that clearly don’t need it. And they should be talking about the dangers of applications that collate and distribute data about people who could be endangered by having that information made readily available; because while a persistent stalker might find it independently, a casual stalker will find it immensely useful, and it can remove one more barrier between hating someone quietly on the Internet, and turning that hatred into action.