The new social networks: a stalker’s dream?

New sites that literally put you on the map.

In the six pages of coverage given to the new social networking phenomena Foursquare and Gowalla in the latest issue of Wired magazine, the words "privacy", "safety" or "security" do not make a single appearance. Yet these are just two new social networking sites that don't just want to know what you are doing as Twitter and Facebook do -- they want to mark your exact location on a map, with pinpoint accuracy. Scary? No, it's terrifying.

For someone who has complained about the potential invasion of privacy already foisted on an often unwitting public by social networking sites -- which fall back on the argument that people have opted in to their services and so aren't concerned about privacy -- the thought of people telling the world their exact location at any point in time is hugely concerning.

The privacy storm that engulfed Facebook recently, prompting it to update its privacy settings and procedures, has so far swept right past these new darlings of the tech industry: Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and Loopt, to name a few. After all, they could turn out to be the next Twitter or Facebook, and make their founders and investors instant millionaires.

How social networking got location-savvy

With Foursquare and Gowalla, you create a free account on the website in a few clicks, and perhaps download a small application to your laptop, smartphone or, dare I say, iPad. You can then "check in" to the site when you are out and about, or just idling at home. "I'm in Starbucks," you might say. "I'm in Starbucks again," you might say the next day. But here's the really good bit: the systems use the GPS chip in your phone to map your exact location, and then show that map to anyone in your social network.

If you check in to a particular location like a Starbucks more than anyone else, you get a badge -- an electronic one, of course -- to say you're a regular, or even the "mayor" of that Starbucks. If you show that badge to the staff at a Starbucks in the US, they'll even give you $1 off any Frappuccino. Whoop.

Before we ask why anyone would want to keep telling the world where they are, let alone show them on a detailed map for a paltry discount on a coffee, let's just look at some of the obvious implications.

"I'm cold and I've lost my mum," a young girl says, mapped precisely to a remote avenue in a vast park, near dusk. "I'm at home on my own all weekend -- the old man's on a trip!" a young lad says, with an accompanying map. "Just parked my brand new Ferrari on 6th Street, hope it's still there when I come out of my meeting LOL."

So what are the checks and balances, the safety measures that these sites have taken to ensure that their users don't do anything that puts the individual at risk? Well, you may ask. Foursquare and Gowalla -- the two leading the geolocation social networking charge -- won't let anyone under 13 years of age join their sites. They are adamant about that, and incredibly strict. Not.

On Foursquare, for instance, you have to enter your date of birth when you sign up, to show you are over 13. The site doesn't check that against a database to ensure you aren't lying about your age, but still, it's something, right? Gowalla won't let you join if you are under 13, either, but it doesn't even ask for your age when you sign up.

Of course, not just anyone can see your location when you "check in" to these sites remotely, only those in your network. Safe as houses, right? Nope. Kids may well be flattered that a good-looking 15-year-old wants to be in their Gowalla network -- only, that good-looking 15-year-old might in fact be a thirty- or fortysomething-year-old called Derek.

Even without faked identities, there's the fact that many won't have the time or energy to carry out rigorous approvals of everyone in their network. They certainly won't read any fine print about using such sites safely.

Taking privacy seriously

I asked Foursquare -- which has 1.5 million users and counting -- about my safety concerns. Am I missing something? Apparently not. "We take our users' privacy very seriously," their spokesperson assured me, "and we've taken several steps to ensure that users are able to control how and when they share information with other people.

"First of all, a user's location is never automatically shared -- they need to choose to check in when they're at a particular venue, and the only people that can see their check-ins are those people that they've accepted as Foursquare friends.

"When they check in, they can decide whether or not they want to tell their friends they've checked in, and whether or not they'd like to publish this information to their Facebook and Twitter accounts," they added. "They can also choose to check in 'off the grid', which means that their friends will be able to see that they've checked in and they can receive badges and points for the check-in, but their location won't be shared."

In other words, when you "check in", you need to make sure you check in "off the grid", that is, "opt out" of the mapping aspect of such sites. I've written before about the difficulty in expecting anyone to opt out of anything. Suffice to say it's not foolproof, even if someone understands the risks.

So, what's the benefit of these new geolocation-based social networks -- why are they the talk of Silicon Valley, on the front cover of Wired magazine, and counting user growth in the tens of thousands a day? As in the Starbucks example, users are encouraged to earn badges by "checking in" at a location more than anyone else. You could collect badges for checking in more times than anyone else, logging in late at night (I kid you not), being the first to register a place, or even doing a long journey that you log in to the system.

It's hoped more companies like Starbucks will reward users who come back often -- though there's nothing to stop you "checking in" thousands of times without ever actually buying a coffee.

Life becomes a game, played out on a Google map.

Your friends -- your real friends, at least -- might like to know you're in town and fancy a beer. They might appreciate you telling them you had great service at a particular restaurant in their neighbourhood. They might not have known about a little antiques shop down that alley behind the cinema. All of which is good, and interesting, and potentially valuable. And all of which you could tell your friends without showing your location on a map -- indeed, without joining a social networking site at all. As they say on Twitter, #privacy, man.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.