Last night, Social Media Club Seattle featured a stellar panel on Ethics, Money and New Ideas, with panelists Andru Edwards of Gear Live Media, Izabelle Gorczynski (privacy attorney for Microsoft), Matt Haynes of Wunderman and moderated Andy Boyer of Spring Creek Group. Some interesting questions were raised, not the least of which was "What would you do if you had run across the iPad at the bar before release?"
If you're curious, answers ranged from "I'd take pictures of it and then give it to the bartender to return" to "It's abandoned; I'd keep it. But I wouldn't sell it for $5,000."
More interesting to me was the fairly tired debate over location-based services and privacy/safety. I'm considering establishing a new drinking game: when the subject of privacy comes up with respect to social networking sites and/or location-based services, the first person to mention Please Rob Me loses--and everybody drinks.
Does social media put its users at increased risk?
Frankly, it's pretty silly to believe that an average level of participation in Foursquare or Facebook mean that you're a significantly more likely target for burglars. First of all, as was explained to me when my own Chicago apartment was robbed eight years ago, long before Facebook was more than a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, robbery involves taking something of value by force or threat of force and or by putting the victim in fear. For robbery, the victim is present and threatened. Burglary refers to a crime involving breaking and entering, usually for the secondary crime of theft of personal property. So the site should be entitled "Come Burglarize Me."
Grammar aside, I'd also like to point out that that particular burglary managed to take place without the aid of Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare or Gowalla. Some kids (we think) climbed onto the garage and in a window when I was at Fourth of July festivities in another part of town. They had no way of knowing I was gone; the building had no assigned parking spaces.
Crimes of opportunity happen, but I'm not convinced that participating in social networking sites, microblogs and location-based services heightens the risk significantly, provided the user takes a moderate level of precautions. So the question isn't "does participation in these sites put the user at risk?" it's "does participation in these sites put the user at increased risk?"
Consider the following:
- It's uncommon to publish a home address on Facebook. One panelist suggested that it was common for Facebook users to publish street addresses publicly on their profiles. A poll during the question-and-answer session showed that only one person out of 150 attendees published a home address on Facebook. It's not a common practice.
- It's uncommon to publish a precise home address on Foursquare. Despite the fact that my buddy Mike Foley will check in to "Foleymo World Headquarters," he doesn't include an exact address, just a neighborhood. with his exact address ("It's 1510 23rd Ave. And I don't care who knows it," he Tweets), most users don't publish their home addresses. It's more common to list a title such as "The Homestead" with mention only of a neighborhood, such as "Fremont." If someone wants to hit every home in Fremont, he could be our guest, but I suspect a burglar's time would be better spent actually casing homes to physically see who isn't home and has valuables to steal. And most people don't check in at home, just to social venues.
- Just because one person is out doesn't mean the home is empty. Spouses, children, housesitters and petsitters are often still present in the home, so simply because one resident checks in at a hotel in Hawaii doesn't mean the home is abandoned and free game. In my case, a burglar would have to make his way through a concierge, a secure building and some pretty feisty house- and pet-sitters. And frankly, my most valuable assets, my laptop and electronics, will usually with me. Sadly, there is no hidden stash of Tiffany diamonds or Faberge eggs in the back of my closet (that I know of).
None of this is to say that another burglary couldn't happen, but is the risk increased? A few months ago, five scant months after my move to Seattle, my car was stolen out of the building's "secure" parking garage. Again, it was a crime of opportunity for joyriders looking for a nondistinct ride to take on a crime spree--and nothing was more nondistinct than my silver Honda Civic. Would my checking in on Foursquare and indicating that I was on foot, nowhere near my car, have made that particular burglary any more or less likely? Doubtful.
If you're concerned about your online presence increasing the chance of your becoming the victim of a crime, just take these basic precautions:
- Don't publish your address anywhere. Not on Facebook, not on Twitter, not on Foursquare or Gowalla.
- Don't mention the name of the street on which you live.
- When away for extended periods of time, make it known that others are occupying your home and that you are checking in frequently
- For extra security, don't publish your work address, either.