informa
/
4 MIN READ
Commentary

Loopt Trips Over Privacy

The location-based social networking service Loopt is trying to recover from a privacy fumble, as users accuse it of spewing text-message spam and disclosing user cell phone numbers and whereabouts without permission. The controversy is sure to be a forerunner of privacy battles to come, as GPS-enabled cell phones like the iPhone enable businesses to track -- and disclose -- where people are at any given moment.
The location-based social networking service Loopt is trying to recover from a privacy fumble, as users accuse it of spewing text-message spam and disclosing user cell phone numbers and whereabouts without permission. The controversy is sure to be a forerunner of privacy battles to come, as GPS-enabled cell phones like the iPhone enable businesses to track -- and disclose -- where people are at any given moment.Loopt is a social networking service that you can use to connect with friends, send messages, and share photos, comments, and recommendations. Loopt's twist is that it knows where you are, using GPS or other location-based services, and it will tell you which of your Loopt friends are near you at any given time.

Justine Ezarik, author of the popular Tasty Blog Snack text blog, and iJustine.tv video blog, said in a phone interview that she started hearing from friends telling her she'd spammed them with invitations to Loopt. But she never intended to send those messages.

She said she changed her phone number several times in the past year after harassment incidents, and is no longer as free as she was in giving out her number, which makes the Loopt incident particularly troublesome.

"People change their phone number for a reason!!" Ezeriak said in a blog post Monday. "With the ease of syncing contacts on the iPhone, it's not always guaranteed that everyone in your contact list is a BFF (read: best friend forever). Also, there's always people you just never want to text... Like Steve Jobs, or an old boss, or maybe even an ex who would rather push you in front of a bus than get a text message from you?"

Ezeriak said she still likes Loopt. They got back to her promptly about the problem, and resolved it quickly.

Loopt apologized on the company blog: "A couple of folks have recently blogged that Loopt automatically spams your contacts with invites. We wanted to let everyone know that 1) we apologize for the confusion and unintended invites and 2) this issue has been fixed.""

Loopt disabled the invitations feature Tuesday in the face of criticism, and plans to distribute a new iPhone app -- with an easier to understand interface -- today (Wednesday), company CEO Sam Altman said in a phone interview.

Some of the facts of the matter are in dispute. Altman said the problem was a confusing user interface on his company's software, which led people to send invitations to contacts in their iPhone address book without realizing they were doing it.

However, Merlin Mann, editor of the blog 43folders.com, said he got a Loopt invite from a total stranger, who he never gave his contact information to. He started a thread for the subject on the consumer site GetSatisfaction.com, a site where users can post public messages to try to get satisfaction from companies. A person signing herself "modelchick8806" said she also got a Loopt invitation from a stranger.

Another person on GetSatisfaction.com, signing himself Matt, noted that the recipient pays to receive text messages.

Modelchick8806 and a couple of other people on the discussion said Loopt doesn't respond to "STOP" and "HELP" commands that other automated text-message services use to allow people to control whether they receive messages. However, Altman said the service does respond to those commands.

Loopt's requirement that users disclose cell phone numbers to invitation recipients is, ironically, an anti-spam measure, Altman said. Similarly, users must know the cell phone numbers of people they send invitations to. These requirements are designed to make sure that users really have a mutual trust relationship with the recipients of friendship requests.

"This is something you won't see us change our stance on," Altman said. The requirement to use real cell phone numbers makes it harder to spoof an account, he said. "This is different from other online social networks, you're sharing your real location with users."

Loopt had a multistep process for users to verify that they really wanted to send invitations, Altman said. Nonetheless, that didn't prove sufficient.

But that's not the users' fault, it's Loopt's fault, Mann said. If Loopt is providing the technology to allow people to send unwanted text messages to strangers, then that's wrong, and Loopt needs to step up to fix it. "This attitude of going out and bootstrapping a company by what you can get away with is not right, and that's what it feels like right now," Mann said in a phone interview. "If they're correcting that, that's great."

Services such as Loopt raise privacy concerns even when they try to do the right thing, notes News.com blogger Kevin Ho. Among his concerns: That Loopt, or another service like it, might be abused by direct marketers, who would send you text messages for the stores that you pass on the street.

"You've become a human cookie," Ho said.

Also, many users will be uncomfortable disclosing their location information even to close friends and family, he said.

Editor's Choice
Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Nathan Eddy, Freelance Writer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing