Laura Pevehouse Thomas

The Person Breaking Into Your House Has Probably Never Heard of PleaseRobMe.com


I told you so.

Sorry, couldn’t resist. But, remember just a few weeks ago I was saying that the fearful, cautionary tales of the perils of using location-based services would be coming?

Well, this week they really blew up with the creation of the PleaseRobMe.com site that captured the publicly tweeted checkins of foursquare users and rebroadcast them in the form of messages telling the world that said users just left home.  The implication being that their homes were now empty and ripe for the picking.
The site creators said “our intention is not, and never has been, to have people burglarized.” Which begged the question of just what was their intention – other than to shock and scare, I mean. (Like Hutch Carpenter, I also noticed the Google Adwords ads on the site which “for some people will undercut the message and put the focus on the money-making opportunity.”)

Yes, yes, I can grasp that they might want to warn people of dangers in announcing their location.  Like I said, I expected that sort of thing. And, yes, I can agree that there are certainly dangers out there.  But, there’s danger in crossing the road and driving down the street. You just have to look both ways and watch out for the other idiots on the road, rather than stay home all day.

As I saw more and more people talking about this and saying “what these guys are doing [is] hacking a system to show its vulnerability, not to corrupt it,” I thought it only fair to find out if I was just being naive.

So, I went to someone who deals with criminal minds every day – my friend that is a detective for the Austin Police Department – and I asked him if he thought people would really use this sort of thing to target people’s homes.

“Most crooks will not surf the web to find a target,” he replied. “Most crooks simply pick a neighborhood, and in most cases randomly pick a house/target.”

Which kinda confirms my belief that if someone was going to decide to rob my house, they’d probably use more old-fashioned techniques to do it.

I also like the take Stowe Boyd has on what there is to be learned from this whole thing:

Foursquare provides a fixed notion of circles of trust: you have a group of friends to whom you are a friend. Being a friend in this context means you are willing to share geolocational information. [...]
Note that it could be one of your ‘Friends’ that breaks into your apartment, or who stalks you to your place and rapes you. Most rapes (77%) in the US are by non-strangers according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, and go unreported. While many of these rapists might not be close enough to get friended, my bet is that a lot of them are.
I am not saying this to create concerns about safety, per se. I am suggesting that a single level of ‘friending’ is probably too general to satisfy assumed needs for safety, although there is little evidence that social tools increase the likelihood of burglaries or rape. We don’t have an epidemic of ‘social crime’ to resolve here.

[UPDATE: Missed foursquare's great take on this at their blog earlier. They note: "we definitely 'get' the larger issue here - location is sensitive data and people should be careful about with whom and when they share it. And at foursquare, we do everything we can to make sure that our users know with what people and social sites they are sharing their location with."]

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