Safety Tips For Location-Based Networks Like Foursquare and Gowalla
Common Sense Safety Tips For Foursquare And Gowalla
Common Sense Safety Tips For Foursquare And Gowalla

Location-based platforms like Foursquare and Gowalla (and I heard Friday Facebook might be unveiling location-based data soon) are the hot new thing in the tech world. That means the rest of the world will probably think they’re cool about 6-9 months from now. Like many Web 2.0 companies, the location-based services have open source coding and Facebook-like privacy ignorance in their DNA. It’s astounding how little concern has been given to people’s privacy, safety and security with these softwares. But I blame the users almost as much as the companies themselves.

Jennifer Leggio pointed out some of the hidden privacy concerns around Foursquare on ZDNet last week. Among her issues: Mayorship is public information whether you want it to be or not; Random people creeping up on you using the “I’m in the room,” alerts; and broadcasting who you’re with to your networks. Maybe they don’t want people knowing where they are. Her concerns are all valid, but let’s take a look at what you, the user, can do to use location-based services and still protect yourself and others.

1. Never Check-In At Home

Treasure Map by Filip Fuxa on Shutterstock.comI don’t care how little Mark Zuckerberg regards your privacy, broadcasting that you’re at home, or even where home is, opens up a potential can-o-worms. It’s more than Not only do you not want people easily knowing when you’re not there, potentially heightening your chances of someone doing something unsightly to your home, but there are a whole lot of people out there you probably don’t want to know where you live in the first place. Yes, if this concerns you, there are a lot more steps to take to feel better (paying to not be listed in the white pages, making sure you weren’t out front when the Google Street team drove by, etc.). And yes, if someone wanted to find out where you lived, they probably could. But do you want to broadcast it to plant the seed of misdeed with the semi-stalker crowd?

2. Never Check-In At Someone Else’s House

You don’t want your privacy compromised, but don’t forget about that of others. Checking in at Mom and Dad’s house is just as risky as checking in at your own, only you’ll feel a hell of a lot more guilty for the slip. When in doubt about someone else’s privacy or choice, don’t. Good rule of thumb.

3. Never Check-In At Your Kid’s School

This should be a no-brainer. But you would be shocked at how many parents feel comfortable saying they just dropped Bobby and Suzie off at X location. Extend that thinking beyond the school, too and don’t tell people your kids are at a friend’s house, etc. Yes, this is probably more paranoia than wholly warranted advice, but when it comes to our children, we have the right to be more safe than sorry, right?

4. Never Check In With Someone Without Their Permission

Leggio was right. Connecting your Foursquare (or Gowalla for that matter) to Twitter or Facebook broadcasts your updates to the world. When you say you’re with someone and connected to those networks to publish your location updates, you are telling the public stream where your friend is. If they haven’t given you permission to do so, you’ve potentially compromised their privacy. In most cases, it’s not a big deal, but again: Safe or sorry?

5. Never Check In At Your Girlfriend’s House

That is, of course, if you’re married. (This is a joke. Don’t get any big ideas about silly ole me.) Actually, the concept isn’t something to laugh at. I’m betting there’s a two-timing ho (or man ho) out there dumb enough to check in at the booty call. Just be aware that you’ll soon then be checking in from either the doghouse or a homeless shelter, which you probably deserve.

Privacy, safety and security are critical issues to consider when using any technology. The ease of use of our Web 2.0 world helps us forget that. But let’s not forget it to our own detriment one day. Yes, if someone wants to commit a crime against your or your family they probably will find a way to do so and location-based services probably won’t help them.

But do you really want to expose yourself to threats because you didn’t think it through?

What other must-nots would you list for Foursquare or Gowalla? The comments, as always, are yours.

IMAGE: Treasure Map by Filip Fuxa on

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
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  • Of course, it would help if he knew how FourSquare worked before writing this post.

    1) FourSquare has the ability to create private locations (like home) that are only visible to your friends on the service. Assuming that you are at all concerned about security and privacy those people should already only include people you trust.

    2) FourSquare automatically checks you in as being at a place “with” anyone you are friends with. This isn't something you can do. If a friend of mine is at the Preds game and I'm at the Preds game and we both check in, it will say “with @user” automatically. No way to Tweet that you're at a location but have it selectively say who you are with

  • Of course, it would help if he knew how FourSquare worked before writing this post.

    1) FourSquare has the ability to create private locations (like home) that are only visible to your friends on the service. Assuming that you are at all concerned about security and privacy those people should already only include people you trust.

    2) FourSquare automatically checks you in as being at a place “with” anyone you are friends with. This isn't something you can do. If a friend of mine is at the Preds game and I'm at the Preds game and we both check in, it will say “with @user” automatically. No way to Tweet that you're at a location but have it selectively say who you are with

  • RM_InBoundMarketingPR

    Really great points Jason and things that are very much common sense… We are all trying to be as transparent as we can be to built our brand, but we must still be cautious and realize that some information, like the location of our children's school is very much private information and where the line is drawn..

    Great Post!

  • @leblog2marilyne

    Thank you for “the rest of the world”
    food is our goal, be shure we won't wait 6 to 9 months to think about it! :)
    special dedicate from a french community manager …

  • Hey Jason what are you going to do when You get paged at a store after checking in on @foursquare? I received a page to offer me a suggestion about an ice cream flavor I was hitting the store for……..yes I did. Now that is fully interactive global community right?

    • That's creepy. I think I would have left.

      But I could see that being pretty neat, too. Have to ponder on it.

      • Wally Taft

        “That's creepy.”

        Says the dude with a REALLY CREEPY profile photo! You look like an evil mastermind!

  • Yes, conveying too much information that can affect your personal safety is a major concern. Particularly for people traveling alone or living alone.

  • scotttownsend

    I heard someone say the other day that a group of women, using Foursquare, never check-in when they enter a venue, only when they get ready to leave.

  • I think the best protection is keeping your network closed. On Twitter, I'll connect with anyone if they are interesting and relevant to my world. On FB, I only connect with friends, and my Foursqure world is even smaller. If I don't feel comfortable with you knowing where I am, I'll never accept your friendship. I think that's rule #1.

    Rule #2 – if you don't want ppl to know where you are, don't publish it to Twitter, as Jason said.

    Rule #3 – I always do this to minimize stalking – I check in as I'm leaving. This gives me points, badges, but keeps people from just popping in. Unless this is a big event like a SXSW party or something like that, and I'm trying to get my friends together.

    I do check in at home, but I usually don't publish to 4SQ. It's a rather large apt complex, so no one really knows how or where to find me. Am I wrong in that assumption?

    – Maria

  • Great post, Jason. I've tried coming up with a good reason to “check-in” using these various technologies and have yet to do so. Beyond compromised security, I think these tools are also increasing the expectation that we're all immediately available, 24/7. But to your point, the primary responsibility needs to fall on us – not the technologies themselves. It goes back to the philosophy of “just because we can, doesn't mean we should.” It will be interesting to see how these tools develop, and how we might use them beyond simply letting people know where we are.

  • Jason, all good tips, however, lets not muddy the issue of safety here. The chances that someone on twitter reading that your at a particular location and then coming out specifically to do you harm is so slim its almost negligible. However, the chances that someone who knows you will do you harm is much greater. Lets not help spread the myth of stranger danger, especially for women. Women are typically harmed by people they know. The real message here is: Know your network and know them well.

    • Certainly good thoughts, Simon. My wife is a rape crisis counselor, so I'm
      well aware that it's normally someone you know. And I also think that if
      someone is going to do something bad, social media isn't going to be a
      deciding factor. But it's still good to be safe. Rather than the
      alternative. Thanks for the thoughts. And knowing your network well is good

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  • I'm so glad someone wrote a post about this. I only check in at places that are common for a lot of people to be: the mall, movie theater, stadiums, etc. I never check in at my house, the gas station down the street, or my grocery store. Some people check in every where they go and when you look at their profile, you can see what they did all day long, step by step. It basically says: hey stalker, come kill me.

  • Truly good advice – I'm a recent Foursquare user and have already found myself thinking twice about checking in. It's not unusual that people get so hung up on a new media, and one this much fun, without thinking. But, thanks to articles like yours, people are waking up to reality.

    Thank you!

  • Great points – common sense things that people frequently forget in the wake of “oooh shiny!” new technologies. Seems like the rule of thumb is: if you don't want someone meeting you there, don't check in. Which makes sense – why else would you tell people where you are?

    Foursquare & Gowalla are great tools, but only if we use them properly. As far as privacy is concerned, you set your own boundaries, they don't set them for you.

  • I often do Hubble Check Ins.

    Just as looking through the Hubble Telescope is looking back in time, consider checking in after you're on the way home (or home)

    When I travel, I often go “dark”. I don't like broadcasting when I'm out of town.

  • It took me some time to join Foursquare. One of the reasons was Foursquare didn't cover where I lived and another reason was I had security concerns. Don't ask me why I changed my mind regarding security because I'm a pretty private person and am not trusting of the world. Your points are common sense, but sadly many people don't think about it. There are times when I chose not to post my check-ins to Twitter or Facebook, but for the most part I do. I'm in public places and rarely ever alone. I think I've got enough street smarts to keep myself safe.

  • 1) Definitely check in when you're about to leave somewhere. Then, you get the points and credit at low risk to someone actually finding you there.

    2) Do use broadcasting to Facebook and Twitter judiciously, and make use of the off-the-grid feature. Too many checkins, even if real, can annoy people, and this is also a privacy trick.

    3) If there are places you hang out but don't want people knowing you hang out there, never, ever check in there, not a single time. You never get your first checkin back.

    • Mark, super points. I really appreciate your number 1 point. I think I'm going to start checking in that way from now on.

  • Let me expand upon what Brian in the comments might be eluding to. Most of these privacy issues with Foursquare, Gowalla, and even Facebook can be mitigated or eliminated with a little dose of common sense. Many folks don't quite get the reach and implications the data they share can have in the age of the social web. Not understanding the visibility of the content they share is what has the biggest impact on the average user's perception and understanding of privacy.

    Based on Jennifer's article it seems that the Foursquare folks didn't quite understand how some of their features would unknowingly breach the privacy of their users.

  • 6. Never leave the house without your common sense! ;-)


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