How Developers Can Help Prevent "Social Burglaries"

We've covered location stalking through apps like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook Places as a potentially hazardous concept for the truly paranoid. Well, it's not so much a laughing matter, anymore. A ring of burglars in New Hampshire used social websites, and potentially tracked location sharing app checkins, to find when their soon-to-be victims were away from home on vacation.

According to authorities, the ring managed to break into 50 homes and steal upwards of $100,000 of stuff. Originally, it was thought that the ring was using Facebook Places to find victims, but that would be kind of a stretch and was eventually confirmed to not have anything to do with the break-ins. Facebook Places checkins are only visible to your friends, according to your privacy settings. Apparently two of the victims were friends with the burglars. If check-ins were to blame, the more likely culprit is Foursquare or Gowalla, who make check-in histories viewable on public profiles.

Even when privacy controls are in place, applications can gain access to some of the content via authenticated API calls. That means developers have a responsibility to maintain privacy. While Foursquare, for example, has done a a good job of explaining privacy to its users, it has ignored developer requests for guidelines.

Even with providers and developers watching out for privacy issues, much of the burden is on users. Do we just stop checking in and forgo sharing our trips in real time? How can we adjust our check-in habits to make us less share-happy? The first thing I would suggest is you go to Foursquare and/or Gowalla and set your profile to friends-only (which Foursquare and Gowalla should really set as the default).

While it's unfortunate that this has happened to 50 or so homes, it's important that we all take a strong lesson from this. Be more aware of what you're sharing online and remember that the Internet is largely a publicly viewable space.

Be sure to read the next Security article: Facebook Changes Offer Users Clarity