Death Stalks the Twittersphere, Offering a Lesson in Consumer Exposure

Apps Showcase Potential Issues That Could Creep Out Congress Even More

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
A priest, a rabbi and a witch doctor walk into a bar. The rabbi tweets, "Oy, you'll never believe where I am and who I'm with. Can't wait for the punch line."

Five minutes later, the bar's phone rings. The bartender picks it up, listens and shouts, "Is there a Rabbi Glickman here? " The rabbi takes the phone, asks the bartender who's calling. Bartender shrugs. "Tel Aviv," he says. Rabbi says, "Hello?" Voice on the line says, "Rabbi Glickman, like this phone call, death can catch you anywhere, anytime. Don't you want to leave a last message before it's too late?"


OK, the reason the joke isn't exactly funny is that it isn't exactly a joke; it's an actual scenario, being played out again and again, in the service of a web app called If I Die from a startup called Willook. Two Israeli boutique agencies have collaborated in the effort, which chooses prospects from the Twittersphere, follows their feeds and -- using the geolocation metadata embedded in the tweets to ascertain the prospect's whereabouts -- phones them there to recommend If I Die.

Yes, the marketer just appears, like the Grim Reaper, to warn you that the Grim Reaper can just appear. The offer is to leave a farewell (or parting shot) for friends, enemies or loved ones via your iPhone or whatever.

Oddly, some people -- upon being phoned in a bar or restaurant by a total stranger to warn them about sudden death -- aren't amused, much less motivated to start downloading. Rather, says Erez Rubinstein of the Tel Aviv engagement-marketing boutique Twentythree, some targets are "a bit concerned." Expressing-total-freakedoutedness concerned. Slamming-the-phone-down concerned. In at least one instance, calling-the-police concerned.

"We were really surprised by how much people were surprised that we know where they are," he said. "We were aware that it was a thin line, but we didn't illegally break into something public."

No, that they didn't. You can't break into something that isn't locked shut, and geolocation throws the doors and windows wide open. Users of Foursquare, obviously, have decided for whatever reason that community trumps privacy, and they gleefully inform their pals of their precise whereabouts. This app offers a secondary function, of course, as a burglary engine -- yielding such cautionary websites like Please Rob Me. But what the "If I Die" campaign demonstrates is that you don't have to be knowingly surrendering location information in order to be surrendering location information. A Tweet that says, "Finally got home" -- or, "On my way out of the door for a month!" -- also contains the exact geocoordinates for where the tweet was sent from.

"You don't know how exposed you are," Rubinstein understates.

Yiannis Kakavas knows. He's a German software programmer and creator of Creepy, which aggregates all of an individual's text and metadata from Twitter and other social apps and plots them across place and time -- where the person was, and when, going back as far as the Twitter trail left behind. For a criminal, this is like having the victim case the joint for him.

"It can be even worse," Kakavas told me in an interview for On the Media. "Like 'Here's Brittany in the primary school' or 'Here's Brittany at her favorite ice cream shop' or 'Here's Brittany at her favorite playground' -- giving away information where the parents are hanging out with their children and leaving everyone to know how and when they can reach them."

The online marketing industry at the moment is at pains to assuage the Federal Trade Commission -- and lately Sens. John McCain and John Kerry -- on the privacy implications of online behavioral tracking. Imagine what will happen when they realize the physical privacy risks of mobile apps. Just to put this in perspective, to track a suspected terrorist's physical movements via cellphone, the government requires a subpoena, a search warrant or a National Security Letter. Yet millions of ordinary citizens are broadcasting more granular information to anybody and everybody.

"The enemy is not only a terrorist or the state or someone who might want to track us," Kakavas cautioned. "The enemy in that case is our need for showing off and over-sharing our information."

Back in Israel, the folks at Twentythree and Mizbala claim to be consciousness-raisers themselves, toying with personal privacy not just to flog a mobile app, but to call attention to the unintended consequences of mobile apps. "It's really interesting ," Rubinstein muses, "to see what happens when you bring the internet and real life together."

Yep. It'll also be interesting to see what happens when you bring the mobile-marketing industry and the U.S. Congress together. Somebody had better begin warning consumers, and I don't mean programmers and columnists. I mean Twitter itself. Because when the Grim Reaper comes, it is already too late.

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