Priya Kumar Shares Thoughts on Need for Tech Companies to Consider Privacy Implications Before Creating Potentially Creepy Features


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You May Have Forgotten Fourspace, but it Didn't Forget You
By Paris Martineau

Foursquare is rolling out a temporary feature, hypertrending, for this year's South by Southwest conference. It’s a map of the Austin area that shows the location of all the people with smartphones Foursquare can track, in real-time. The app anonymizes and aggregates the data so that people’s locations aren’t shown individually, but in clusters. Foursqare cofounder, Dennis Crowley, says that’s to protect user privacy.

“We're not sure if it's the responsible thing or not to have a view like this in the phone yet,” Crowley says. “I don't know how people will react to seeing a heat map in real time of where all the phones are. I can imagine some people would be like, ‘That's the coolest thing!’ And I can imagine some people would be like, ‘That's the creepiest thing!’”

He says this tension between creepy and cool is part of the reason Foursquare is only testing the feature at SXSW. It is only available to users in Austin and will “self-destruct” in two weeks once the festival has ended. “Part of the exercise is showing this to the innovators and creative types that are down there and [having them] help us think through and talk through what are we doing here, what should we do next,” Crowley says. If the reception is positive, Foursquare could turn the tech into a service that developers could query to build something similar.

Priya Kumar, a privacy researcher and tech ethicist, says Foursquare should have been more respectful of users before rolling out a potentially controversial feature like Hypertrending. “Foursquare and the team that created this feature didn't think about [whether] their use of this data fits the context in which the users provided it,” she says. 

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