If you are one of the millions of people using social media to report where you are, you may have been tuned in to all the buzz lately about the site Please Rob Me. The concept is very simple, when you use applications like Gowalla, Foursquare, Brighkite, Loopt or anything else that broadcasts your location, you run the risk of telling the world that you aren't at home and it's ripe for the picking. You can compound it by advertising to potential stalkers (not much of an issue for me, but certainly if you're popular).
The geolocation features built into these applications not only tell people where you are, but if they have any familiarity with you, the area, or just spend a few minutes reading your history, they can pretty quickly posit for how long you will be away. This isn't limited to just geolocation-broadcasting services — you can just as easily use Twitter or Facebook (among others) to inadvertently tell people you are away from home or at a particular place.
That it took all the press around the Please Rob Me site to cause people to consider this is almost laughable. Granted, the site is pretty overt in how it conveniently aggregates all the data for visitors, but it's not doing anything that an interested party couldn't do on his or her own in a few minutes. All the site does is show all the Tweets from Foursquare users as they check in — not very complex. To quote from its Why page:
The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you're definitely not... home. So here we are; on one end we're leaving lights on when we're going on a holiday, and on the other we're telling everybody on the internet we're not home.
So how can you enjoy social media with geolocation features and still minimize your risk?
Techniques for Safe Check-ins
These are just three options. I employ each of these and find them fairly easy to follow. None of these will stop the old fashioned thief (who doesn't use social media), but they can make it a little harder for those casing you online.
Remember, you don't have to check in to a location as soon as you get there.
Let that sink in for a moment. I see people check in to locations as soon as they walk in the door, but they don't need to. Sure, you may not get the immediate benefit of knowing which of your friends might be nearby, but maybe you should sort that out in advance.
For example, I am known among my friends for posting photos of my meals through Brightkite. What many of them don't realize is that I often check in to a location after I have already left or (if it's near my house) as I am leaving. This has caused a couple awkward moments when a nearby friend is notified of my proximity and comes looking for me.
Hide Your Check-ins
Hide your check-ins from all but your trusted friends. And I don't mean those Facebook friends who you met once while in a mosh pit or that you haven't seen since second grade.
You don't need to Tweet to the entire world where you are. Sure, if it's a major event and you want to brag then go for it, but understand the risk. If you Tweet or check in for every morning visit to the local coffee hut, not only will people know where you are right now, you will be telling them where you are tomorrow or next week. Establishing a pattern of behavior makes it easy for someone to predict your moves.
Consider hiding your Foursquare check-ins and not Tweeting every one; you can still participate in the overall game. Lock down your Facebook profile from the general public. Consider disabling the geotagging from third-party applications that feed to Twitter.
Get a House Sitter
Some of you may be aware that I was just in Houston speaking at a conference. I was more than happy to post my progress via Foursquare check-ins, Brightkite photos, and an assault of Tweets. Anybody could have wandered over to my house for some pillaging, but would have been surprised to find that someone was already there. In fact, I was able to split the duties across two people, so it was better populated than when I am in town.
If you have the luxury of a roommate, house sitter, guard dog, militia, etc., then you may be in good shape already. But consider whether that person at your house is someone you want to put at risk (granted a rather remote risk), or if that person is comfortable with being on watch.
Continue to read up, you may come up with some ideas that work better for you than my suggestions.
- The dark side of geo: PleaseRobMe.com at CNET.
- Are We All Asking to Be Robbed? at Mashable.
- Google Buzz: Privacy nightmare at CNET.
- Facebook Privacy Complaint Ignites War of Words at PCWorld.
- Twitter Your Way to Getting Robbed at Mashable.
- HOW TO: Make Your Small Business Geolocation-Ready at Mashable.
- How Robbers Did Their Dirty Deeds Before Foursquare at Mashable.
- Friday Poll: Do Location Check-In Services Freak You Out? at Mashable.