Are Public Check-Ins Worth The Risk?

Photo by Adam Selwood

Without wishing to overly alarm those of you (or whose kids) use FourSquare or similar services, here’s a real-life example of what I cautioned about in my Gee-Oh!-Location post last September.

In the blog linked below, the author describes how she was stalked by a stranger to a restaurant where she’d checked in via FourSquare.

shea sylvia [blog edition] – A Cautionary Tale.

I have friends who work for geolocation services, who may wish to argue that this sort of thing is a bad apple that shouldn’t spoil the bunch. I understand the benefits of establishing win-win relationships with retailers one favors. I even understand (sort of) the gameplay aspects.

But if you must “check in,” make sure you do so privately to your friends also on the service, not to the general public. Because surely, the benefits of doing so publicly don’t outweigh the all-too-real risks.

Related: Think Twice Before You Post That

Thanks to ProducerGirl, whose original tweet about Shea Sylvia’s blog brought it to my attention.


  1. Some of my friends check-in *after* they’ve left the place that they were visiting. Granted, if it’s a place you frequent often enough, you still run the risk of having someone stalk you so I suppose it should become a matter of what time of day you check in (morning/early afternoon is preferred) and whether there’s anyone with you.

  2. I think we’re seeing mostly eye-to-eye here, but I would like to clarify something I said earlier (after all, this is going to be indexed and preserved forever, so I might as well make sure it’s representative!)

    When I say that it’s not “worth changing your behavior over”, I don’t mean to diminish the significance of the unsettling events that can and have happened to people in connection with (and not in connection with) geo services. Nor do I mean to say that we should be cavalier in our behavior. Instead, we should be careful about engaging in extreme behavior either way, because that behavior always has costs.

    When somebody calls your house, and your voice isn’t on the answering machine, that’s a (small) cost, but one that you’ve deemed worth taking. But you probably didn’t deem the cost of a live-in security guard worth the benefits either.

    Security is ALWAYS a trade-off. Many security measures make sense to take, and some do not. But I think we both think restricting the broadcast radius of Foursquare checkins to close friends is sensible 🙂

  3. Thank you for the comment, Parker :). I agree with the answering machine analogy. In fact, that’s why we don’t have our name on our outgoing voicemail at home.

    However, there’s a difference between the few dozen random people at a restaurant knowing one’s location and (potentially) one’s name, and the entire internet having access to the same information.

    I also agree that this concern isn’t unique to geolocation services. It’s just that – as with digital technology and music – they facilitate the wide dispersion of information that wouldn’t have previously been so readily available. So the difference is amplification of the message.

    Our house was robbed 22 years ago, an event orchestrated by someone who had knowledge of our whereabouts. That was pre-internet. Believe me when I say it’s worth changing one’s behavior over.

    I’m not saying not to use geolocation services. I’m saying to be selective, and to reveal the information only to your trusted/friends circle. And to think twice about it at that.

  4. I don’t really see what the risk is here. A creepy person knew her name and a restaurant she was at. If she was with friends at the restaurant, and they happened to say her name, then all of the other potentially creepy guests eating there know her name too, and they know precisely when she arrived and left!

    Bad people (or just extremely socially maladjusted people, as this creep may have been) are going to do bad things, and they don’t need technology to do them. If you go frequently to a restaurant, you don’t need to check in on Foursquare for creeps to know that it’s your usual haunt.

    This is certainly an unsettling experience, but frankly I can’t understand at all how it’s unique to geolocation services, or how it represents a risk to using them.

    (Incidentally, the comparison between the evils of geolocation and answering machines has been made before: and I think it holds here. If you say your name on your answering machine, some creeper could call your number at random and then, if you picked up in the future, ask for you by name. Unsettling, sure, but not really worth changing behavior over.)

  5. Thanks for your comment, Steve. That’s a reasonable compromise. On the other hand, if it’s a place you check into regularly, you run the risk of someone knowing it’s a usual haunt.

  6. Just checkin as you are LEAVING some place if you are worried about stalkers. Problem solved.

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