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Terms & Conditions: If you care about privacy, don’t use Foursquare

Terms & Conditions Foursquare privacy policy

What are you really agreeing to when you click that fateful “agree” button? Terms & Conditions cuts out the legal lingo to spell it out in plain English.

Few social media actions are more dangerous than sharing your location to the world. Either someone can find you when you might not want them to, or someone can find out when you’re not home, and rob you blind. Despite this, location-sharing remains one of the pillars of social media, with Foursquare sitting at the top of the bunch. And yet, the company has a surprisingly poor privacy track record. In May of last year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) ranked the company as one of the worst defenders of user privacy on the Internet. Luckily, it seems as though Foursquare is listening; following an update to its terms last July, the company has released a second updated privacy policy, which will go into effect on January 28. The company has also updated its “Privacy 101″ page to go along with the new terms.

For this edition of T&C, we’ll sift through Foursquare’s new privacy policy to see whether it will soon be any safer to check in. (Hint: It’s not.)

Privacy Policy

The main differences between the current Foursquare privacy policy and the new one are: 1. Your full name will always appear when you check in at a location; 2. businesses will now be able to see which customers are checking in most often over a much longer period of time (it used to be limited to the past three hours). That’s the main stuff, and I’ll get into how to stop both of these things from interferring with your privacy later. But first, the nitty gritty details.

What information is always public

There are certain data that will always be public. This includes your name, your hometown (i.e. “location” in your profile), your bio, your profile picture and other public photos, your likes, your tips, your lists, and your friends. The only way to hide this info is to either not include it, or to change it so it doesn’t actually reveal any personal information about you. If you don’t, this information can easily be found through a simple Google search for your name, or other online outlets.

Of course, if you want to become “mayor” of a certain location, that’s public too – that’s just part of the feature.

What data Foursquare collects

Personal data: The first section, “What Personal Information Does Foursquare Collect?,” tells you exactly what you think it does. And it basically says what most social networks say these days: Your “Personal Information” – email address, phone number, birthday, social media handles, which websites you visit, and information related to your Foursquare usage – are all collected by the company. Foursquare does not try to hide the fact that this info will be used to serve you targeted advertising, as well as other service-related features.

Impersonal data: Also like most other social networks, Foursquare distinguishes between “personal” and “non-personal” information. The latter category includes things like IP address, cookie data, your browser info, which device you’re using, etc. Foursquare aggregates your data and that of other users, and will share this information with its partners.

Third parties: Foursquare has added an entirely new part to the data-collection section that deals with third parties: Namely, Foursquare will collect your data from other companies that are linked to your Foursquare account in some way. The company gives the example of redeeming a Foursquare deal in a credit card purchase, in which case Foursquare will learn when and where you made that purchase. Again, pretty standard stuff – problematic stuff, if your’e particularly privacy-conscious, but standard all the same.

The last line, however, is the most important: “Please read the privacy policy of any such app so that you understand its sharing practices.” In other words, anytime you use one service that is connected to another service (such as Foursquare), you are subjected to both of their privacy policies and terms of service.

How your data is shared

Foursquare kicks off this section by saying that it will “neither rent nor sell your Personal Information to anyone.” This is misleading; the company won’t sell or rent your data, but it will “share” it! As to how it will share that data, the company has made significant changes to that explanation. They are as follows:

Friends: Your Foursquare friends can see, “the location and time of each of your check-ins, name, email, phone number, photo, hometown, mayorships and badges, links to your Twitter and Facebook accounts (if you have connected those accounts to your Foursquare account), a list of your friends, and tips you write,” the company explains. Those so-called “friends” can then share that data with whomever they like, so be careful who your friends are.

Businesses: Of course, of the main reasons people use Foursquare is to check in at businesses. Doing so allows these businesses to see who’s checked in (unless you turn off that option in your privacy settings). As mentioned, if you want to become “mayor” of a certain location, that will, of course, be made public.

And to reiterate further, businesses will now be able to see more information about the frequency of customers. You can turn this off in your privacy settings by unchecking the last option under “Location Information.”

Foursquare API: There are thousands of third-party apps that use Foursquare’s API, which gives those apps the ability to access much of your information. And because this information can be accessed through any of your Foursquare “friends,” the only way to avoid having your data spread around to countless other apps and app developers is to tweak your profile so it doesn’t include any accurate information about you.

Law enforcement and credit agencies: All of the above information should really not be all that surprising – tons of other social networks have similar polices. (Again, that’s not to say that this is good for users, but you should know that this kind of divulging of your personal information is part of the cost of using social networks.)

But the consequences of all this aren’t just that people will be able to easily find out where you shop, eat, drink, and socialize. Using Foursquare also means that your location information can be easily shared with law enforcement – something the EFF found the company more than willing to do. Likely of greater concern for the average person is that Foursquare data can be used for “credit risk reduction.” That’s right, your Foursquare check-ins could help determine whether you get that loan, credit card, or mortgage. This, combined with everything else, makes me, for one, never want to use Foursquare.

How to protect your privacy

Ok, so by now you’ve probably figured out that using Foursquare is a great way to tell the world a whole hell of a lot about yourself. So if privacy is something you even remotely care about, I highly recommend not using it at all. But if you do want to have a Foursquare account, here’s how to make it private as possible.

1. Use a fake name: As mentioned, your full name will now appear next to all your check-ins. There’s no way to turn this off. But you can use a fake name by changing it in the “Your Profile” part of your settings.

2. Leave out your hometown: Your “hometown” or permanent “location” is also always public, so leave that out. (This can also be changed under “Your Profile.”)

3. Don’t link your Facebook and Twitter profiles: Foursquare makes it east to share your information on Twitter and Facebook. But this only increases the amount of data about your life that is out in the open. So, as tempting as it may be, you shouldn’t link these accounts together.

4. Don’t connect any apps: While connecting apps may make Foursquare more useful and fun, it also decreases your privacy further. Don’t connect any of them.

5. Uncheck all of these boxes: You can find this under “Privacy Settings” under “Settings” when you’re logged into Foursquare.

Foursquare settings

Conclusion

As you have probably realized, one all this is done, there’s not really any point in using Foursquare. Which should tell you something: If you can’t use the service without divulging massive amounts of information about yourself to the world, should you really be using it at all? It’s ok if your answer is yes, of course. But just know what your’e getting yourself into.