These days, it’s hard not to violate someone’s privacy. People announce their locations using online services like Foursquare — “I’m at Yankee Stadium” — and connect the account so their whereabouts also show up as a Facebook status, or on their public Twitter feeds.
Suddenly, you know far more than necessary about their personal habits — when they are “getting a burger at Shake Shack” or “at New York Sports Club” or “at work.”
But convenience comes with a price. “If you create this record, you’re not the only one who has it,” Jeschke added.Maybe passive stalking is just another fact of life in the 21st century, when everything from your cellphone to the ATM keeps track of you. “There are a lot of conveniences to these technologies,” said Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In fact, more than half of people with mobile devices that include geo-location worry about losing privacy, Webroot, an Internet security firm, says. Yet more than a quarter of the users polled have shared their whereabouts with people other than friends.
Burglars comb the obituaries to find empty houses, to know where you weren’t. But what if someone wanted to know where you were?
I decided to answer the question by tracking a stranger online.
It couldn’t be hard. After all, there are websites devoted to pointing out how easy it is. Pleaserobme.com, for example, has a live stream from users who publish Foursquare locations to Twitter. The idea, as the site’s mission statement says, is “everybody can get this information.”
Next I discovered maps with pins corresponding to users’ exact locations.My first step was to sign up as Foursquare user 8152292, also known as Steph (I declined to provide more information).
As I scrolled, I discovered that “View tweets nearby” shows you any tweet published from nearby coordinates. “Mayor” shows who visits a location most often. “Who’s here” displays the user-selected picture of each user who has checked in in the past three hours. You can click on a user to view a public Foursquare profile, and learn which social networking sites are linked.
But just as the GPS in your car sometimes thinks you’re driving on a parallel road, Foursquare also can guess wrong. To compensate, it offers a list of all the nearby locations, so you also can also see from your location “who’s at” places within a several-block radius. From the comfort of my apartment, I searched for “mayors” who checked in most frequently at locations near me.
And … bingo. I found a likely candidate.
Joey D. lived in the Bronx, worked near my apartment and appeared to frequent local eateries for lunch. His Twitter feed — which gave me his last name — consisted exclusively of updates pushed from his Foursquare.
His Facebook was also connected — and his public profile had a nice, high-resolution picture.I could see when he got to work, when he left. I knew when he went to the gym and when he went to McDonald’s. I knew his cellphone provider and even the kind of phone he owned.
To ease into the stalker thing, rather than surprise him at, say, work, I went to his favorite deli the next morning. There was nowhere to sit, so I waited on the bench at a bus stop and conducted surveillance for almost two hours.
But he didn’t show up. Or if he did, I missed him somehow.
For three days.
Obsessed, I started keeping a constant watch on his Twitter page and darted out of the house every time he updated his location near me.
But I still kept missing him — from a Starbucks to a bank — and whenever he failed to check in at his next stops, the trail went cold.
Two weeks went by. I narrowed my focus. Although his work address was available, several different businesses were in his building — two cafes and a slew of doctors’ offices. Despite aggressive Googling and a more thorough evaluation of his Facebook, I couldn’t figure out his actual job.
So I camped out for hours at a time in the two cafes, hoping he might stop for a coffee. I consumed my body weight in hot chocolate so the waitresses wouldn’t think I was a deadbeat. I sat near windows and stared at passers-by. I tried to sneak into off-limits areas in case he worked in one of the storerooms or something.
Frustrated, I finally adopted a 20th-century stalking technique: I called the businesses in his building and asked for Joey.
“Never heard of him. Sorry.”
Maybe our privacy is safer than I thought. While passive stalking is easy, closing the deal can be hard.
Eventually, I contacted Joey through Facebook. I offered to meet him near his work — and included the address, just for good measure.
“I don’t know how you obtained my work address,” he wrote back, with more than a trace of hostility.
Concerned about his safety — which seemed fair, given the circumstances — he didn’t want to meet a stranger in person. I gave him my number.
A few hours later the phone rang: Joey.
It turned out he had stalked me too: He’d decided I wasn’t a threat after checking my LinkedIn profile.
“Did you realize that all that stuff was public?” I asked.
“I figured that only people who were my friends could see,” he answered.
He said he was a 31-year-old (which I already knew, because his Facebook listed his high school graduation year) assistant to an orthopedic surgeon (ohhh) who felt himself reasonably savvy when it came to Facebook and Myspace, but confided that he’d signed up for Foursquare without a vast knowledge of the privacy settings.
Would our interaction change his behavior?
“I think you’ve creeped me out sufficiently,” he said, and vowed to make his Twitter feed private.