A man walks up to a woman in a bar. Instead of shyly asking about her interests, he already knows them. He doesn't ask where she is from or where she went to school. After a furtive glance at his phone, he knows that, too.
He has an app for that.
This particular app is called "GirlsaroundMe" and like many other smartphone programs that provide fast and easy information, it uses publicly available data. For instance, GirlsAroundMe finds out what girls recently checked in to a bar on the social media site Foursquare, alerts the user and provides a look at the girl's Facebook profile, complete with photo and interests. Usually, it is without her knowledge.
The app was taken down this year voluntarily by its creator SMS Systems after a hailstorm of privacy concerns from bloggers led by the Cult of Mac calling it a "stalker app." Many others exist to take its place in various forms as the world's smartphones increasingly become repositories for personal data.
Companies who produce the apps say they are harmless. SMS, based in Russia, said in a statement that all data it provides are already public, and it plans on bringing back another version soon. "The app just allows the user to browse the venues nearby, as if you passed by and looked in the window," SMS said in a statement.
Experts say millions of mobile users unwittingly share personal data everyday. Tech giants such as Facebook, Apple and Twitter are coming under legal fire.
"What we are seeing now is just the top of the mountain in terms of applications that are collecting information about their users. The privacy questions they raise are just going to keep coming," says Lee Tien, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Among the apps causing alarm:
•Highlight, a highly anticipated mobile friend-finding app, monitors the location of its users, and notifies them if their friends and family, or complete strangers with similar interests, are nearby, according to the company's website. Unlike the failed GirlsaroundMe app, which requires its users to be users of Foursquare to send out a location alert, Highlight will track user location constantly.
•SceneTap uses facial detection software to monitor bars and determine the age and gender of those in the crowd. The goal, said SceneTap's CEO Cole Harper in an open letter addressing privacy concerns, is for people to use "the app to find the scene that is right for them." The app lets users know the male-female ratio of the bar and how crowded it is.
•Find Friends Nearby was Facebook's response to the new trend. In testing, the app allowed users to opt-in to being listed on a mobile map that tracked friends and strangers alike, showing a user's profile, name and pictures to those nearby. The app was pulled amid privacy concerns. "This was something that a few engineers were testing. With all tests, some get released as full products, others don't," Facebook said in a statement released last week.
In a separate legal backlash to the possibly invasive apps, Facebook, Apple and Twitter are accused of "surreptitiously harvesting, uploading and illegally stealing" the contents of millions of iPhone and Android users' address books, according to a lawsuit filed in Austin in March 2012.
"With apps like these, risks to personal security skyrocket," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Users need to have control over the disclosure of their personal information, but the problem is many apps trick users into revealing where they are, what they are doing and who they are doing it with. Then they are revealing a lot of that data to the third party app providers."