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Archive for July 2010

How I became a Foursquare cyberstalker

Posted Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

It’s the coolest social networking tool in the world. But is the geo-location app Foursquare a stalker’s dream? Just how easy it is to uncover the intimate details of a complete stranger’s life?

Guardian, 23 July 2010

Louise has straight, auburn hair and, judging by the only photograph I have of her, she’s in her 30s. She works in recruitment. I also know which train station she uses regularly, what supermarket she shopped at last night and where she met her friends for a meal in her home town last week. At this moment, she is somewhere inside the pub in front of me meeting with colleagues after work.

Louise is a complete stranger. Until 10 minutes ago when I discovered she was located within a mile of me, I didn’t even know of her existence. But equipped only with a smartphone and an increasingly popular social networking application called Foursquare, I have located her to within just a few square metres, accessed her

Twitter account and conducted multiple cross-referenced Google searches using the personal details I have already managed to accrue about her from her online presence. In the short time it has taken me to walk to this pub in central London, I probably know more about her than if I’d spent an hour talking to her face-to-face. She doesn’t know it yet, but Louise is about to meet her new digital stalker.

Foursquare is the latest social networking tool to generate online buzz. The story has become very familiar in recent years: a bright young thing develops an internet app that connects people and allows them instantly to communicate with each other; within months, a million or more people around the planet are using it; investors queue up expressing an interest and speculation begins about how much Google, Yahoo!, Apple or Microsoft is willing to throw down to snap it up. (To date, the speculative figure in the media has reached $100m.) Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Bebo have all come before it, but Foursquare promises something new. After a decade of false dawns for the industry, it leads the way in a wave of new “geolocative” social networking tools.

Unofficially, at least, 2010 has been labelled by many within the technology world as the “year of location”. In addition to offering the communal connectivity of Twitter and Facebook, Foursquare also uses your smartphone’s global positioning system (GPS) to broadcast your precise location to your “friends” and, should you so wish, to the wider world. Users are encouraged to “check in” on their phone whenever they arrive at a point of interest – a shop, a cafe, a museum, a nightclub, an office – so that fellow users know where they are. A great way supposedly to see if any of your friends are around and about. Glance down at your phone and – as I did with Louise – see the names of all the other users around you within a mile or so and, crucially, exactly where they are and which fellow users they are with. (I was drawn to Louise because she was in a cluster of Foursquare users – albeit still rare, even somewhere such as London – and she was the user allowing a stranger such as myself access to the most personal information – photograph, full name, Twitter feed etc.) Visit somewhere a lot and you can even vie with other users to become its virtual “mayor”. If you feel so inclined, you can also leave a tip or review in the digital ether – “hey, order the bacon burger, it’s great!” – so others following can benefit from your experience.

Foursquare is now being widely touted as the app which will, after years of anticipation and prediction, mark the beginning of “life as a game” computing. Whatever you do, wherever you go, you will be scoring points, earning “medals”, and be in, at the very least, social competition with other users around you. What the ultimate prize is, no one is yet quite sure, but some companies have been quick to realise the potential of this technology with Starbucks, Debenhams and others offering loyal customerswho frequently check in to their stores rewards such as a free cup of coffee. Imagine a supermarket loyalty reward card synced with Twitter,Amazon reviews and GPS technology and you have some idea of Foursquare’s potency.
But with such power comes responsibility and there are growing concerns that Foursquare is proving to be a “stalker’s dream”. Sure, you might earn yourself a “free” decaf latte when you check in five times at a coffee shop, but at what price to your privacy? Last month, a coding expert called Jesper Andersen managed to  capture the details of 875,000 check-ins in San Francisco – currently, the global hotspot of Foursquare use – over a three-week period after noticing a privacy glitch in the “who was here” function which allowed him to monitor who had been checking-in to any location, regardless of the users’ privacy settings.

“I’m trying to be white-hat [computing slang for a ‘good guy’],” Andersen told Wired.com. “It definitely felt icky at times.” He had asked users he knew to confirm his findings. “Some were grossed out by it, and a couple of people stopped using Foursquare. One had a stalker and got creeped out by it.”

Privacy advocates fear that Foursquare, along with other geolocation apps such as Gowalla and Google Latitude, are vulnerable to “data scraping”, namely, the sophisticated trawling and monitoring of user activity in an effort to build a rich database of personal information. The big worry, say critics, is who might get to make use of this information. Pick your paranoia. Someone with criminal intent, such as a burglar, identity thief or stalker? Governments, the security services or police? Terrorists? Or a corporation looking to target its products at you with incredible precision? Compounding the threat is that “friends” are much more readily accumulated in the online world of social networking compared to who we might choose to accept as friends in our “real life”. Accept a friend request in Foursquare without due care and you are potentially opening up your personal diary to a complete stranger.

Jason Stamper, editor of Computer Business Review, has criticised Foursquare for what he says is its lax attitude to privacy protection, describing the potential risks as “terrifying”. Stamper’s principal criticism is that

Foursquare’s default position on privacy is that users must “opt-out” if they don’t want any of their location-based details broadcast to friends and the wider world. Of course, Foursquare would be rendered virtually useless as a tool if a user did this so there is typically always some form of data exposure occurring when someone uses Foursquare. As has been repeatedly shown before with Facebook, the risks will often boil down to whether you really know who your “friends” are. “Many of these companies, such as Foursquare, are only paying lip service to privacy concerns,” says Stamper. “Their motivation is growth. They need a critical mass of users to make their service more useful so they have to leave their doors open as much as possible.

“Privacy seems to be very low down their priorities. In theory, if every user knows the risks, this is fine. But they just don’t. It’s being targeted at 18 to 25-year-olds. Facebook was forced in the end to change its default privacy settings due to public concerns. Foursquare should do the same. Some people are even checking in when they’re at home. Think of the implications. It’s crazy.”

The potential for someone to “layer” data about you is also a key concern, says Stamper. “Someone using Foursquare can accumulate a very detailed map of your habits when added to what they already know about you via Facebook, Twitter etc.

Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International, a London-based “watchdog on surveillance and privacy invasions by governments and corporations”, shares similar fears about the direction this technology is taking society. “It’s very difficult to extract yourself from it all once you’re in. And crossing the line into live feeds of locative information is a deeply worrying step forward. Technologically, it’s not a huge step, but, socially, it is huge. The big moral questions are being left to the app developers to answer at the moment. This is irresponsible. Users are being socially engineered into allowing this level of privacy invasion through the over-hyping of the benefits.”

Holding the smartphone in my palm with a full-screen picture of Louise on display, I enter. Inside, a football match is showing on various screens, pints of ale and chilled lager are being pulled, and huddles of friends are bent over tables laughing and in conversation. But after several sweeps of the pub I can see no sign of Louise, or anyone even vaguely matching her picture. So I check her Twitter feed again and see she’s just tweeted that she’s at a recruitment networking event. I ask at the bar if there’s a function room. “Yes, downstairs.”

Besides the gents, a glass-panelled door reveals a private room heaving with people in tight groups clutching glasses of wine. On a wall behind them, a large projector screen is displaying a “Twitterwall”, a way of showing to an audience a feed of any particular Twitter hashtag, in this case, the name of the networking event. So I goback up to the bar, set up a Twitter account under a pseudonym on my phone, and – not wishing to freak Louise out – send a public message using the event’s hashtag to the Twitterwall that I wish to talk to any of the

Foursquare users I can see on my phone who are currently in the pub. A five-minute wait and a further tweet later, Louise – sensibly accompanied by a male colleague – walks up to the bar area where I’m waiting and asks if I’m the person trying to make contact. It’s probably with a sense of relief that she discovers that I’m “only” a journalist investigating Foursquare.

So why does she use it? “My job in recruitment means that I try to stay at the forefront of technologies such as Twitter and Facebook,” she says. “I’m just messing about with it really. To be honest, I couldn’t see at first the obvious uses of Foursquare.” I then tell her the sort of information I have already managed to deduce about her life simply by using my phone. I show her that I have her own photo on my phone. She admits it’s a “little unnerving, to say the least”.

“I thought I was being very careful with what I was posting,” she says. “I never thought I was revealing personal information. I only use my maiden name when using social networking apps. And I never check in when at my kids’ school or at home. But, as you’ve shown, I can’t see who’s following me on Twitter. If I was going out for an evening with my girlfriends again, I don’t think I would now share it with the world via Foursquare.” (Louise’s setting on Foursquare automatically tweets her location whenever she checks into a location, which was how I could tell via her Twitter feed, without being her Foursquare “friend”, where she had been in recent days in such detail.)

Will she continue to use Foursquare, or at least tighten up her privacy settings? “It’s just early adopters at the moment, but I can see it having excellent uses for business, particularly in my line of work. Recruitment is a form of stalking, I suppose. But I can now see the negative implications of Foursquare in the real world.

“Checking in at home is really stupid. But people can still give away clues via Twitter, as I’ve obviously been doing. I suppose the benefit of checking in is to create a relationship, or say to people that you’ve gone somewhere interesting. It’s all part of social competitiveness, I suppose. It has become a habit for so many of us.”

Since Andersen exposed Foursquare’s privacy lapses so effectively last month, the company has made some minor alterations to how user check-in information is revealed to the public. (In March, Foursquare set up its “celebrity mode” with MTV and VH1 so that users could follow celebrity users, albeit with limited, controlled information about their location.) But a user’s location can still be automatically broadcast via their Twitter feed. Critics point out that a warning of the risks should be prominently displayed to users when they set up their accounts, and they are asked if they wish to link with their Twitter and Facebook accounts.

“We’re continually looking for ways to improve the sharing options that we provide,” responds a Foursquare spokeswoman. “For example, we recently updated our user-settings page to create more opt-out options related to sharing user data. We are working on a number of additional changes to give users more sharing options and further clarify the implications of sharing information via Foursquare. We encourage all of our users to check their privacy settings regularly to ensure that they’re comfortable with the amount of information that they’re sharing.”

The spokeswoman adds: “The majority of our sharing settings are opt-in – users need to actively accept friend requests to be directly connected with others, and users also need to opt into broadcasting their check-ins to their Facebook and Twitter accounts at each check-in, assuming they’ve decided to link their Facebook and Twitter accounts to their Foursquare account.”

Ten days ago Foursquare reached the two-million-users landmark, just three months after it had reached the one-million mark. A week earlier, the company received $20m in venture capital from a who’s who of Silicon Valley luminaries. It appears the trajectory for Foursquare is only upwards. But as the critical mass of Foursquare users swells and intensifies over the coming months and years, the concerns over privacy are likely to magnify. In June, Webroot, a Denver-based internet security firm, surveyed 1,645 users of “geo-location-ready mobile devices”, including 624 in the UK: 29% said they shared their location with people other than their friends; 31% said they accepted a friend request from a stranger; and, yet, 55% still said they were worried about their loss of privacy.

“The issue with location-based information is that it exposes another layer of personal information that, frankly, we haven’t had to think much about: our exact physical location at anytime, anywhere,” explained the creators of PleaseRobMe.com, a website set up to expose how vulnerable Twitter users can be when displaying location-based messages, earlier this year. “If you’re comfortable being a human homing beacon, that’s fine, we just want you to be fully aware of what that means and the potential risks it might involve.”

Model of Bloodhound supersonic car unveiled

Posted Friday, July 23rd, 2010

The British team hoping to drive a car faster than 1,000mph has unveiled a full-scale model of the vehicle.

The model is a star turn at this year’s Farnborough International Air Show.The team has announced that aerospace manufacturer Hampson Industries will begin building the rear of the real vehicle in the first quarter of 2011.

Another deal to construct the front end with a second company is very close.”We now have a route to manufacture for the whole car,” said chief engineer Mark Chapman.”We would hope to be able to shake down the vehicle on a runway in the UK either at the end of 2011 or at the beginning of 2012,” he told BBC News.

Assuming no major issues arise from those runway tests, Bloodhound will be shipped straight to a dried up lakebed known as Hakskeen Pan, in the Northern Cape of South Africa, to begin its assault on the world land speed record.

To claim the record, the vehicle will have to better the mark of 763mph (1,228km/h) set by the Thrust SuperSonic Car in 1997. But the team believes Bloodhound’s superior aerodynamic shape, allied to the immense power of its Falcon hybrid rocket and Eurofighter-Typhoon jet engine, will take the blue and orange car beyond 1,000mph (1,610km/h).

Three people who worked on Thrust are also engaged in the Bloodhound project. They are driver Wing Cdr Andy Green, project director Richard Noble and chief aerodynamicist Ron Ayres. The trio envisaged Bloodhound not just as another record bid but as a project that could inspire children to engage in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. And the Bloodhound Education Programme has announced here at Farnborough that some 1.5 million school children are now using curriculum resource materials based on the supersonic car.

Key modifications
The model car is on display at the Farnborough air show this week. The real vehicle will weigh about six tonnes, but even the polystyrene and fibre-glass replica weighs 950kg.

Visitors will be able to see in the model the key aerodynamic advances made by the design team at the turn of the year which turned Bloodhound into a driveable car.

Before this point, the car was producing dangerous amounts of lift at high speed in the modelling. But by playing with the position and shape of key elements of the car’s rear end, the design team found a solution that will manage the shockwave passing around and under the vehicle when it goes supersonic.

The effort was assisted greatly by project sponsor Intel. It was able to bring colossal computing power to bear on the lift problem.

“It’s called configuration 10,” said Mr Chapman. “It’s very angular at the back; it’s got a very narrow rear-track.

Between November and March, we reduced 11 tonnes of lift to zero lift at Mach 1.3. At that point, we had the aerodynamic shape which you see in the show car. It’s very stable.”

Ron Ayres added: “We’re now working on things like the air brakes and engine-bay cooling – detail inside the car. There’s a lot of engineering to do. But as far as the outside of the car is concerned, we’re pretty much done. Some work still needs to be done on the wheel fairings, the fin, the shape and size of the winglets.”

Businesses ‘profit from investing in nature’

Posted Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Businesses can and should take a key role in stemming biodiversity loss around the world, a report concludes.

BBC.co.uk, 13th July 2010

The latest report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) project argues that many sectors have a stake in protecting nature.

A survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) finds that in some nations, more than half of CEOs see nature loss as a challenge to business growth.

The UN-backed Teeb project presents its latest results in London on Tuesday.

The first Global Business of Biodiversity symposium, held at the Excel Centre in London’s Docklands, will hear that about half of European and US consumers say they would stop buying products from companies that disregard biodiversity concerns.

“Better accounting of business impacts on biodiversity, both positive and negative, is essential to spur change in business investment and operations,” said Joshua Bishop, chief economist of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and co-ordinator of the Teeb for Business report.

“Smart business leaders realise that integrating biodiversity and ecosystem services in their value chains can generate substantial cost savings and new revenues, as well as improved business reputation and license to operate.”

Mining for positives
Among the “smart companies” to be discussed at the symposium is Rio Tinto, a mining conglomerate whose reputation (like others in the field) has been criticised on environmental and human rights grounds.

In 2004, the company adopted a “Net Positive Impact” (NPI) commitment on biodiversity.

This sees it working with environment organisations to protect important areas from direct mining impacts and putting funds into conservation to “offset” damage caused.

Another is the agribusiness giant Syngenta, which recently launched Operation Pollinator, a scheme to restore important bee habitat.

The scheme is seen as a potential contribution to curbing the ongoing bee decline in Europe and North America.

One recent study put the global value of insect pollinators at $189bn per year – a classical example of the kind of “ecosystem service” that nature provides for free, and that humans would have to pay to replace if the natural system broke down.

Items in the credit column including protection from storms, habitat for young fish, and carbon storage.

Teeb has calculated the annual value of forest loss around the world at $2-5 trillion.

Plants and machinery
Teeb, and the UN Environment Programme to which it is affiliated, argue that this kind of analysis makes nature protection a good investment for businesses.

Consumer opinion could be another factor.

A recent Ipsos survey found that in countries possessing high levels of biodiversity, awareness of biodiversity decline was correspondingly high, rising to 90% in Brazil.

Among business leaders, the PwC survey found that more than half of CEOs in Latin America see declines in biodiversity as a challenge to growth.

But the figure drops to 20% in Western Europe, and just 15% in the UK.

And only two of the world’s largest 100 companies see biodiversity and ecosystem loss as a strategic issue.

“Businesses need to start thinking about ecosystems as an extension of their asset base, part of their plant and machinery, and appreciating the value they deliver,” said Jon Williams, PwC‘s partner for sustainability and climate change.

Teeb’s leader, Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev, believes companies will find it easier to invest in biodiversity protection once a mechanism for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (Redd) becomes established through the UN climate convention.

Many countries favour a variant called Redd-Plus where issues such as biodiversity and forest peoples’ rights would be protected.

“We can move to a stage where big companies and countries are able to say ‘we’re meeting 20% of our emissions targets’ or whatever it might be through investing in green carbon,” he told BBC News.

“Then we can look at other issues, such as the forest’s water storage function for local people, for example.

“So it won’t be a market in the classical sense but it will be a mechanism, and companies investing would be able to see whether their investments bring about things such as an improvement in water availability or an increase in the tiger population or whatever it might be.”

Teeb will produce its final report for October’s meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Japan, which will see governments examining the reasons why they have failed to live up to their 2002 pledge to curb nature loss by 2010.

Qantas the most searched for brand of the World Cup

Posted Thursday, July 8th, 2010

The most searched for World Cup brand is Qantas and others in the travel or fashion industry, however a report out July 7 by Marketing Week shows that World Cup sponsors fail to engage the public while Wimbledon boosts brand searches.

The Independent, 8th July 2010
Most of the official World Cup sponsors are failing to engage the public according to a report on July 7 by industry magazine Marketing Week.

During the week June 26-Jul 3, apart from car manufacturer Kia, all the other official sponsors of the World Cup have seen a decline in internet searches for their product, despite the high visibility of their logos at every game. The report states that rather than official sponsors the most popular searches are for individual brands sponsoring teams.

Between the week ending June 26 and July 3, ex World Cup sponsor Gillette, the razor and men’s grooming company, experienced a 20% rise insearches, even though it is not associated with this year’s tournament.

UK based household retailer and provider of the England team’s suits, Marks and Spencer, also saw an increase in searches, up 6.5% in the same period.  Hertz car rental which are sponsoring UK tennis tournament Wimbledon, saw an 11.1% rise in searches during the same time period.

However while World Cup sponsors seen a decline in public interest, tennis brands are becoming increasingly popular. UK internet searches for tennis are up 177% from the week June 26-Jul 3 according to trend monitoring site Hitwise. Searches for tennis racquets have doubled year on year and the most searched for tennis racquets are Babolat and Wilson, Babolat being the racquet of choice for men’s winner Rafael Nadal and Wilson being used by women’s Serena Williams and men’s top seeded Roger Federer.


For the week ending July 3 the most searched for World Cup brands were

1. Australian airline Qantas

2. Grooming company Gillette

3. Car hire company Hertz         

4. British airline Virgin Atlantic

=5. German Airline Lufthansa

=5. UK Household retaile

Social media helps drive purchases

Posted Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Customers accessing an online store via a social media site are 10 times more likely to buy something than other users, claims new research.

Marketingmagazine.co.uk, 29th June 2010

 Social media: undervalued as marketing tool says new research
 The research by Payment provider Sage Pay (PSP) has revealed that whereas 7% of all visitors to an online store make a purchase, a significantly higher 71% of visitors initiated via social media will click their way to the transaction section.

The study showed that while online retailers may be good at attracting consumers to the website in the first place, only a minority will be converted to customers.

It suggests such businesses develop stronger marketing tools to make this conversion, and adds that social media marketing such as advertising on Facebook is an undervalued tool, as it is highly effective.

Simon Black, managing director at Sage Pay, said: “Flitting from site to site, it takes a lot to entice today’s shoppers. Once they’ve arrived in an online store, they might sniff around and put a thing or two in the shopping cart – but even when they have typed in their credit card number, there is still no guarantee that the sale will be closed.”

Black added: “The modern shopper often looks for reassurance from a positive review, a special offer to make it more affordable, inexpensive delivery options and a quick, easy and secure way to pay.”

The study also reveals that despite the findings, just 5% of online marketers polled believed that social media was the most effective communication channel.

Speaking at the Cannes Ad Festival last week, WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell likened social media to “letter writing” and suggested it could be “polluted” by attempts to monetise it.

This idea was rejected by Keith Weed, the new chief marketing officer of Unilever, who said it was “word-of-mouth on steroids” and could be harnessed by brands.

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