Foursquare – fun game or impending privacy nightmare?

As we just reported today, Foursquare, the location based social game from Silicon Valley, launched today in London. I’ve duly signed up to check it out, and tweeted out my username to see who’s out there on the system that I know.

First of all the site has no setting to stop receiving emails when someone requests to be your ‘friend’ on Foursquare. That’s not a privacy issue, but it is incredibly annoying. This is possibly their version of a ‘viral loop’. I call it spam/ham. Yes, I can set up a filter, but it’s not an ideal solution. That’s not my main beef with Foursquare.

My main beef right now is the utter lack of sophistication in the privacy settings on location. Let me explain.

This morning I got a friend request from a “Rebecca C.” In the blizzard of Twitter and friend requests on Twitter and other networks I get I simply presumed this was a tech scene person who follows me on Twitter, is probably in London (half the point of Foursquare) and accepted the request, thinking nothing of it. I also activated push alerts on the iPhone app.

The next thing I knew I had a push alert in my iPhone. I’ve atached an edited screenshot of it. Now, I actually don’t know where Rebecca C. lives, so it was a shock to find that she’d put her apartment address into her published location.

Granted we are ‘friends’ on Foursquare so this wasn’t data which was published to the entire planet.

However, it’s quite clear from the above that many people are not going to understand how and to whom they are publishing their location, particularly their home address, on Foursquare. We are all used to the notion of sharing pictures and status updates on social networks. Publishing our location is still a new thing. I know plenty of geeks using Brightkite in the UK, but it’s far less likely to go as viral as Foursquare’s game has already in the US. And it’s likely that with Foursquare’s targeting of London, which is also Twitter’s biggest city, this will become a much bigger issue.

By contrast Rummble, the UK startup which operates not as a game but as a location based trust and reviews network, has far more sophisticated, granular settings for location/relationships (see image). It has a sliding bar for setting your relationship to someone.

I predict all sorts of mainstream media kerfuffle about Foursquare and privacy, not least because of how it will tie into Twitter, which is a media dahling at the moment.