The Week in Bullshit: PleaseRobMe.com

by Ben Smith on 23rd February 2010

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Sometimes smart people do dumb things… and we should forgive them. No one’s perfect.

But sometime smart people use their smartness to mislead and scare a lot of people in a polished but mis-guided attention-seeking stunt and then they deserved to get hit with a tidal-wave of vitriol.

This post started life on Friday as a long step-by-step through why PleaseRobMe.com – a site claiming to highlight the security risks of using mobile location-sharing services such as Foursquare – was wrong.

Since then there’s been some well reasoned responses across the largest blogs so here’s my condensed view:

  1. Empty Homes Aren’t – The site extracts location check-ins from Foursquare and calls them empty homes. This is ridiculous – it assumes no-one shares their home with another person and ignores the huge number of other ways someone could already know you wouldn’t be at home (such as a regular job).
  2. They Misunderstand Risk – Leaving your house increases the risk it may be burgled, but it’s a risk we accept daily and mitigate with locks, alarms and insurance. PleaseRobMe suggests that publicising you aren’t at home adds significant risk you’ll be burgled… it doesn’t. Simply by walking down the street you produce the same effect. A burglar can just knock on your front-door to find-out if you’re out – the relative increase in risk is so small most people ignore it.
  3. There’s No Evidence – No amount of Googling has yet yielded any cases of a location-based service leading to a burglary. I can find one where the victims claims it was the cause, but there’s no justification why that’s a more likely explanation than any other.  Burglars don’t need social network analysis to locate targets – the effort required is greater than the ‘traditional’ method of observing a property and its security measures.
  4. If this was supposed to be helpful it would offer some help – The site makes no actual contribution to users’ understanding of privacy issues or how to protect themselves.  Instead they aim to ‘raise some awareness’… but really they mean ‘of themselves’ not ‘of the issue’.

It's nice to get noticed isn't it?

It boils down to this… the site says:

Our intention is not, and never has been, to have people burgled.

But they can’t have it both ways… There’s either a genuine problem – in which case their tool pinpoints those at risk. Or there’s not – in which case they’re just toying with fears over on-line privacy (it’s the 2nd one by the way).  What’s as bad is the number of sites that swallowed this rubbish unquestioningly and recycled it’s contents.

Privacy issues do deserve care and attention. This did nothing to further that goal.

‘The Week in Bullshit’ title is in homage to the segment of the same name in Charlie Brooker’s excellent Newswipe. In it he squashes the worst of the week’s TV news bullshit with an acerbic wit I haven’t even attempted. Apologies to readers of a sensitive disposition (if we have any) normal service resumes now.

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