Blown To Bits

Foursquare Meets Harvard

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

While preparing a talk about privacy yesterday, I wanted to cite an example of a commercial service that lures people into surrendering their location information in exchange for social connectivity, restaurant recommendations, and the like. I was planning to make the point (and did, when I gave the talk at the HELIN conference today) that location information has cash value, and there are a variety of business models based on getting people to give it up for free and then cashing in on the data that gets collected.

Nothing wrong with this in principle, as long as people understand what they are giving and what they are getting. They are getting connectivity and exposure and recommendations, and they are giving data about the places they go, perhaps not just to the social network but to the business partners of the for-profit corporation that is running it.

In any case, forgetting the names of these networks, I did a little searching and then settled on foursquare as the example I would use. “Check-in to find your friends, unlock your city,” says the site, and the front page then gives a rolling report of what the site members are doing and saying, for example, “Jim N. in DeKalb, Illiois became the mayor of Caribou Coffee.” You can click on the name of the member (player, really) or the establishment to get more information about either. As the site explains,

People use foursquare to “check-in”, which is a way of telling us your whereabouts. When you check-in someplace, we’ll tell your friends where they can find you and recommend places to go & things to do nearby. People check-in at all kind of places – cafes, bars, restaurants, parks, homes, offices.

You’ll find that as your friends use foursquare to check-in, you’ll start learning more about the places they frequent. Not only is it a great way to meet up with nearby friends, but you’ll also start to learn about their favorite spots and the new places they discover.

Not just your friends, either. Just watch the latest check-ins scroll by on the foursquare home page, and you will get lots of interesting tidbits about lots of people. I was starting to groan about the usual privacy questions—who owns the location data, how long does foursquare hold it, how hard will it be for an unhappy spouse or employer to get hold of it, can the company sell it to business partners—when I moved on to work on the next slide.

And then I woke up this morning to discover that foursquare had cut a deal with Harvard University. As Harvard’s official organ, the Gazette, explains,

The service, which is accessible from smartphones and other mobile devices, enables students and visitors to explore the campus and surrounding neighborhoods while sharing information about their favorite places.

The Gazette goes on to proclaim that we are #1: “Harvard is the first university to use foursquare to help students explore their campus and surrounding places of interest.” (Maybe we should take pride in this, though UNC Charlotte claims to be the first university to use foursquare, for a somewhat different purpose. Years ago, when Harvard fell to #2 in the US News rankings, our humor magazine pointed out that this was a good thing, as it would teach us humility, and we should strive to be #1 in humility as we are in everything else.)

Having spent many an afternoon over the past year in information security meetings, where the University has been developing policies and standards for how information about our students may be accessed, stored, and moved, I immediately started wondering whether Harvard had somehow signed onto a deal to encourage students to surrender their privacy, and if so, who was the commercial beneficiary. The Gazette story doesn’t mention data privacy at all. It simply has a Harvard spokesman echoing foursquare’s utopianism.

We believe that Harvard’s participation will allow our community to engage with friends, professors, and colleagues in new ways. We also hope visitors and neighbors will benefit from the platform as it grows through use.

So visiting high school students and Chinese tourists are apparently also the intended “beneficiaries” of this “service.”

As Hal Roberts of the Berkman Center pointed out when I asked him about this story, foursquare’s privacy policy is pure boilerplate:

We receive and store certain types of information whenever you interact with our Service or services. Foursquare automatically receives and records information on our server logs from your browser including your IP address, cookie information, and the page you requested.

It goes on to explain how they aggregate this data and analyze it, and how they won’t disclose it in a way that would identify you personally. Only problem is, the privacy policy doesn’t mention the really private information foursquare collects—the location information. That simply isn’t covered by any of the boilerplate. So they can do what they want with it, without asking. Moreover (and thanks to doc searls for pointing this out), foursquare explicitly says that they may sell that information, and even if they don’t, the company will pass it on if it gets acquired. And that by signing up, you are acknowledging that you understand all that.

Business Transfers: In some cases, we may choose to buy or sell assets. In these types of transactions, customer information is typically one of the business assets that is transferred. Moreover, if Foursquare, or substantially all of its assets were acquired, or in the unlikely event that Foursquare goes out of business or enters bankruptcy, customer information would be one of the assets that is transferred or acquired by a third party. You acknowledge that such transfers may occur, and that any acquirer of Foursquare may continue to use your Personal Information as set forth in this policy.

It’s a free country. If people think it’s fun for people to know where they are, and they understand what they are doing, by all means they should go for it. I am not a killjoy.

But I am puzzled that Harvard wants to encourage this behavior—that it has somehow analyzed the social benefits and the evident commercial interests and privacy risks involved here, and has come to the conclusion that on balance it would be a good thing if a lot of students signed up.

I hardly dare wonder if Harvard itself might have a pecuniary interest in the success of the partnership. I hope not, and that it has simply seen great benefits to the community—and few risks. I would love to know more.

Added January 14: Perry Hewitt, who is quoted in the article, wanted to be clear that there is no “partnership” (as I called it) between Harvard and foursquare. Harvard is simply a foursquare “presence”—as it would be anyway, whether Harvard formally cooperated or not. By allowing foursquare to create a Harvard badge, Harvard is simply making more convenient something people would be doing anyway. I am grateful to Perry for getting back to me and clarifying these points.

3 Responses to “Foursquare Meets Harvard”

  1. gammydodger Says:

    Nice post. It’s not just you location data that has a cash value, every single piece of data that you leave on the web is potentially monetizable – in today’s model usually creating advertising opportunities to target you based on the websites you visit, the searches you’ve made, even the emails you write – and there’s all the questionnaires people take on Facebook. Your data has long been valuable to organizations – Loyalty card schemes are just different lures for your to give up your data – and you are paid for that by discounts or miles or freebies – and inevitably the information gained by the company is more valuable than the rewards you receive.

    So we pay for all of the seemingly free services by giving up our data and its probably okay as long as we know that and that one day all the data will be joined up and a comprehensive story on each of us will emerge. So we should be careful about what we give up online. My rule of thumb is never publish any data that a financial services organization will use to authenticate you – this includes your birthday – so you should ignore all of those requests for your Birthday in Facebook.

  2. Allan Hoving Says:

    when folks can’t even get paid for work, getting paid for personal data seems remote

  3. Location Based Social Networks « Carl's Notepad Says:

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