Commentary

Foursquare's New App Follows Users Wherever They Go

Foursquare has revamped its app in a way that seems all but certain to set off a new round of debate about mobile users' privacy.

The company now tracks users' locations by default -- even when the app is turned off -- and then draws on that data to send people recommendations.

“Foursquare uses your background location to help you discover great places even when your phone is in your pocket,” the app tells users.

A company spokesperson adds that Foursquare will use the information to personalize its suggestions. “The whole purpose is to learn what people like to do and where they like to go, so our service can provide the most relevant search results for them,” the spokesperson says in an email to MediaPost. “That information is shared only between Foursquare and the user, and no one else.”

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For instance, if someone stops at tea shops several times a week, and then visits another city, the app could send them suggestions about tea shops in that city.

While Foursquare notifies people who download the app that it intends to collect data about their locations, it doesn't give them the option to decline during the installation process.

Instead, people who don't want the company to know their whereabouts at all times can go into the app's location settings and uncheck the “location services” box. (People also can turn off their phone's GPS, but that also would affect their ability to use other services, like maps.)

The decision to start collecting this kind of information could prove problematic -- at least from a public relations point of view. For one thing, even though the company is departing from its prior policy, it's rolling out the change on an opt-out basis. That is, after existing users update their Foursquare app, the company will start collecting geolocation from them at all times, unless they revise their location settings.

Also, it's not clear that people will appreciate an app making inferences about them -- much less sending them recommendations -- based on data about the kinds of places they tend to visit.

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