There was an old Andy Griffith episode involving a stranger who arrived in Mayberry and knew so much about the townspeople and the goings-on of the town that it was as if he’d lived there for years. Everyone was mystified, but it turned out that the stranger was getting his information from the local paper, which he’d been receiving in the mail.
I was reminded of that TV episode when I saw this new WhitePages app called WhitePages Neighbors. It also reminded me of Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor on Bewitched, and the black comedy of the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd movie Neighbors.
WhitePages is a public-records search company. It makes money by giving away a little bit of information on people for free, and then charging for a deeper look into public documents for things like criminal records, liens, and email addresses. But WhitePages Neighbors adds an aerial view to this, so that a user can see all of the houses in the neighborhood, along with the names, mailing addresses and phone numbers of everybody who lives inside those houses.
The app sugar-coats the information-selling aspect by offering a way to send invites to all your neighbors for a "block party." The site also offers people a chance to "claim" and correct their WhitePages listing--yay! Thanks, WhitePages, for the opportunity to correct your false information and provide you with more of my accurate personal information to distribute.
I’m not accusing WhitePages of providing a hyperlocal tool for smartphone-carrying burglars or stalkers. But WhitePages is already a very nosy and nearly privacy-infringing service, and the addition of the aerial neighborhood views presented on a mobile device tips the service over the line into Creepyville, population 308 million.
The nice people who made the Breakup Notifier app figure that you probably have about 20 or so Facebook friends that you’d like to hook up with. They know that you often while away the hours by making the rounds to all of their profiles, checking out new pictures posted, looking for little signs, reading between the lines for some indication that the “In a Relationship” status may be on the verge of changing to “Single.”
Why not, they thought, write a little piece of code that makes it easy for get-'em-on-the-rebound types to be Johnny on the Spot when little Susie Creamcheese is at an early stage of her post-breakup life? Presto--new app. I wonder if using the app makes people feel like vultures circling high in the sky above a parched and staggering horse walking its last mile. I wonder what they do when they actually receive a breakup notification? Do they speed over to the newly single person’s page, pop open the chat window, and offer “heeeeeeeyyy. ’sup?”
This is an odd one. Creepy, which the developers call a “geolocation information aggregator,” lets you track locations where Twitter users have tweeted and where Flickr users have uploaded pictures. All you have to do is type in a particular user’s Twitter handle or Flickr username, and the places are displayed on a Google map. That’s because tweets and photos shot on a smartphone are usually accompanied by a geolocation tag when the phone's owner uploads them to the Web.
The developers named the app Creepy, I think, to acknowledge head-on that the app is creepy; arguably, their purpose in creating it was to demonstrate that Twitter and Flickr users need to be careful about their privacy, given that it can be tracked. Then there’s this line from the Disclaimer section: “By using this software, you accept that its intention is to raise awareness and to be used as an educational tool.” Right. Also from the Disclaimer: “Usage of the tool for malicious purposes such as stalking is not endorsed or promoted.” So, stalkers, don't expect any encouragement from the folks behind Creepy.
SnapScouts is the perfect tool for budding fascists everywhere. The app lets you take pictures of anything that “looks suspicious” in your neighborhood, tag the photo, and then send it to SnapScout’s “super secret servers” where “trained security professionals” can vet them and decide on appropriate measures to take in response. The more “suspicious” the people in your photos are, the more prizes you win!
Alright, alright. It’s just a hoax. But we had you going there for a second.
Okay--I downloaded this app to my PC, and without warning it installed a new toolbar on my browser. Aaaaaaaggh! Anyway, here’s how this gem of an app works: You upload pictures of yourself and your partner, and then MakeMeBabies uses “face recognition” technology to mash the two faces together into one child’s face.
But something goes wrong. The faces that the app creates don’t always look exactly human. The amalgamated face has all of the expected components in a predictable array, but something crucial is missing in the eyes--in place of a natural human gaze, there's just a cold, appraising stare. Bodysnatchers!
You get two choices: a background check or an email search. To trigger a background check, you enter the first and last name of the person of interest, and the app spits out any relevant data it has on the person's criminal record, property, relatives' and neighbors' names, and “also known as” aliases. To request an email search, you enter a person’s email address or select an address from your own address book, and the app seeks out any blogs, videos, photos, or social networking pages associated with that email address.
Background Check is advertised as "free" but really you get just one "comprehensive" check per month, and after that you have to pay $1.99 for a basic search.
This app is more dumb than creepy, but still... Baby Manager is the app of choice for mothers who are so obsessive that they want to report everything the kid drinks, eats, or poops every hour of every day. Then, after a given amount of time, Neurotic Mother can run analytics on all the data she’s collected, make potentially spurious determinations about the health of the baby, and pester the pediatrician with the details yet another Google-based diagnosis of an imaginary problem. And of course all the eating, sleeping, peeing, and pooping data can be shared with other neurotic mothers over Twitter and Facebook.
Sugar Sugar (Missing in Action)
Oh I so wanted to tell you about Sugar Sugar, but the app seems to have disappeared from the App Store, and the developer, Online Dating Systems, has temporarily or permanently taken down the Sugar Sugar website. Too bad because this might have been the first app that helped Johns find prostitutes using geolocation technology. Unlike eHarmony, Sugar Sugar wasn't designed to set people up in long-term relationships. Nor did it attempt to establish a nostalgic Archies vibe. Instead, it was created to help men with money—sugar daddies—find “sugar babies”—young women willing to give it up in exchange for, uh, gifts. The app used GPS technology to plot on a map the location of women in the area interested in forming a ‘mutually beneficial’ arrangement.
If Sugar Sugar’s gone for good, there’s always WhatsYourPrice.com, which has stepped up to fill the void that the demise of Craigslist personals has left in men's lives by letting them “bid” real money to hot girls in exchange for a first date. This screen grab from the website tells the whole story:
Evidently, you need a different URL to access all of the site's frugal and unattractive members.
App development, the wide and instantaneous reach of the Web, and improvements in mobile devices and wireless service have put a lot of information at our fingertips for use when and where we want. That’s probably usually a good thing in general, but as the preceding examples suggest, sometimes we go too far--and the same technology can be used to erode personal privacy and to engage in acts ranging from the distasteful to the shameful to the nearly illegal.
That’s right; there’s an app for that.