Please Rob Me and How the Internet Affects Privacy

BlogHer Original Post

Back in college, no one had cell phones. Google had yet to be invented. Social media sites didn't exist and even basic online journaling was still years away. Yet people always knew where to find me. If I wasn't in my apartment, people knew I was in one of five places: (1) Espresso Royale coffee house, (2) the literary magazine office, (3) my art lab, (4) Hillel, or (5) the library. When I didn't want to be found because I was studying for an exam and didn't want to be disturbed (or I was being my usual, moody slacker self and didn't want to subject people to my late-teen angst), I strayed from my usual spaces and went to a different cafe or library section to study. And then, like living off-the-grid, I was unplottable and unfindable in my enormous university.

Today, I still follow a pretty predictable pattern of spaces and even though I now own a cell phone, I look at it as a way for me to make calls rather than be reached while I'm out. I get a lot accomplished because I'm rarely distracted, for instance, by being sucked into long phone calls while I'm trying to do the grocery shopping in under fifteen minutes. I can see the beauty of being highly reachable, but it doesn't work with my hermit-y, singularly focused self.

Which is why it took me a while to get on Facebook. I saw it via a family member, who announced her whereabouts at all times via status updates. My husband had to explain it to my crotchety-old brain which was about to give a lecture on how we went to the same coffee house uphill in the snow every day (and we liked it, damn it!). This was the way kids today operated. They told people where they were via Facebook and used it to make plans or be reachable. Being that findable sounded like the most annoying thing in the world, but I realized that I was also the product of a cell-phone-free upbringing unlike college students today.

But now, a new website is pointing out the darker side of being that reachable. Please Rob Me points out how much information we're revealing when we tweet, post our location on Foursquare, or blog about our upcoming vacation. The site's mission boils down to two sentences: "The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you're definitely not... home."

Please Rob Me screenshot

Screenshot of www.pleaserobme.com

As the Yahoo news article points out: "Please Rob Me isn't a complicated website; it's simply a dressed-up page of Twitter search results that monitors the latest posts of users sharing their locations via Foursquare...A select, misguided few broadcast their address or those of unknowing and disapproving friends or family. This makes the site more useful at proving a point than an actual tool for robbers to exploit."

Foursquare's response is pretty much a throwing up of hands to indicate that while they know their service could compromise privacy if you send your updates to Twitter, they aren't the only way you could compromise your privacy on the Internet, so why are they receiving the brunt of the fear: "The truth is you could make something like this without using foursquare at all. Just try searching Twitter for the words "headed to" and you'll start to scratch the surface on all the location data a lot of us push into the Internets, perhaps even without thinking about it."

The Internet has blown open our privacy regardless. It is fairly easy to find someone's home address and telephone number, their closest relatives, and where they work with a bit of Internet sleuthing. Therefore, why protect the fact that you have run to Starbucks for a few minutes, especially when the pros (being found by a friend and sharing a venti caramel macchiato) outweigh the cons (being robbed during the twenty minutes that you are out of your house)? Is learning about this site and the panic you might be feeling as you read this just a form of digital paranoia akin to this thought: "You might as well argue that you should never tell anyone that you have a job, because then people will know you are at work from 9-5 every day, and can use the white pages to find your home and rob you!"

Or this Huffington Post article which wails that home insurance premiums are going to rise up to 10 percent in an undisclosed and therefore highly scientific amount of time due to people posting their location on Twitter and Facebook and essentially inviting robbers to come by and pick their house clean. Waxy, taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach, points out that the same fears about robbery have been stated about answering machines and wedding announcements (while you're shoving cake into your new spouse's face, a robber is stealing all those engagement presents!).

Girls Guide to the Galaxy points out the balance between being yourself online and not making yourself a soft target:

I’m all for transparency online. Gone are the days where you make up silly names for yourself online (sparkleprincess12! abercrombieluvr88!). I use my full, real name everywhere I can online. Call it personal branding, call it unsafe, whatever. I call it having real, honest commmunication with people online. Am I jumping on to a bunch of sketchy websites telling people where I live? No....I’m not saying we should all start lying again, making up aliases and using pictures of kittens as our avatars. I just think we need to remember there are crazies out there. And to be careful.

Web Teacher muses on the site as well and asks where the line is drawn between sharing and oversharing when it comes to privacy. "I constantly see tweets and Facebook updates announcing specific locations for people: a specific coffee shop, a specific gate at an airport, a specific table in a specific restaurant. How much sharing of where you are is too much?"

I am fairly circumspect, only posting about travel and outings after I've returned for the most part. Do I think this protects me? Of course not--it's similar to a lock on door. If someone wants in, they can get in. Though if they're simply looking for a house rather than my house, they're going to go for a softer target. And I'm hoping right now that it's someone posting the fact that they're not home on Twitter or Foursquare rather than little ole unreachable me.

How circumspect are you online? Do you post your location via Twitter or Foursquare? What is your reaction to sites such as Please Rob Me?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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