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2/17/2010
06:52 PM
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PleaseRobMe.com Solicits Social Theft

The Web site gathers tweets and online posts about people who are away from home to emphasize the risk posed by advertising one's location.

Just in time to piggyback on the Google Buzz privacy backlash, a Web site called PleaseRobMe.com has surfaced to underscore the risk posed by broadcasting information over social networks.

The site simply aggregates the tweets and posts on social networking services that contain location data and invites visitors to assume that when the person making the post is out and about, his or her home is unattended.

It says it is "listing all those empty homes out there," which of course it can't really do. The absence of a single person from his or her home does not necessarily mean the home is unoccupied or unguarded.

Indeed, given that location data can be misrepresented, a person could claim to be away from home while lying in wait for would-be thieves. In other words, don't try this in Texas.

But PleaseRobMe.com insists it's not trying to encourage burglary. Rather, the site's creators -- Barry Borsboom, Frank Groeneveld, and Boy van Amstel -- claim that the goal of their site is to raise awareness of location-privacy issues.

"The danger is publicly telling people where you are," Groeneveld explains on his blog. "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."

This is real risk, albeit a relatively remote one. For example, last July, San Francisco Bay Area videographer Matt Chapman reported being robbed and warned that his posts about his travel plans on Twitter and Facebook may have led to the break-in during his absence.

But such incidents have done little to curtail the growing popularity of social networking sites and they're unlikely to do so in the future.

Social networks have long been used both to commit crimes and to solve crimes. Were social networks to vanish tomorrow, criminals would surely find some other way to identify unoccupied houses.

Even so, Twitter with care.

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