Remember Foursquare? The app from a decade ago where millions of people willingly told the entire internet where they were at any given moment? Well the company still exists and they’re making $100m+ on your location data and have consumer profiles on 100m+ people. For some bizarre reason people still allow this parasite of an app to automatically track them as they go about their day.
Your reward for doing this? Badges. Stickers. Becoming the “mayor” of a location. Childish foolishness is the reward for the stupidity the folks who used–and still use—this data harvesting machine. Foursquare’s reward is hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Everyone was laughing at us, ‘Oh, what are you, just people checking in at coffee shops?’” Crowley says. “Yeah, and they checked in billions of times. So we had this corpus of data, an army of people, who every day were like, ‘I’m at Think Coffee.’ ‘I’m at Think Coffee.’ ‘I’m at Think Coffee.’” Because of the “corpus” of data generated by people like Uncle Tony, Foursquare knows when the dimensions of storefronts change and can tell the difference between an office on the eighth floor and one of the ninth floor.
In addition to all of those active check-ins, at some point Foursquare began collecting passive data using a “check-in button you never had to press.” It doesn’t track people 24/7 (in addition to creeping people out, doing so would burn through phones’ batteries), but instead, if users opt-in to allow the company to “always” track their locations, the app will register when someone stops and determine whether that person is at a red light or inside an Urban Outfitters. The Foursquare database now includes 105 million places and 14 billion check-ins. The result, experts say, is a map that is often more reliable and detailed than the ones generated by Google and Facebook.
The precision of Foursquare’s technology, and the added benefit of not doing business with one of the big-four tech companies, is what attracted clients like Uber and Snap to work with the company. (With about 350 employees, Foursquare has branded itself as an “independent alternative” to Google and Facebook.) Foursquare will not disclose how many of its clients share their own data (clients are not required to share), but it’s safe to assume the data being provided by its clients far outweighs the data being generated by holdout Foursquare City Guide users. All told, the company now has “interest profiles” for over 100 million U.S. consumers.
When Trump began talking about a Muslim ban in 2016, Crowley wondered if Foursquare had the capability to build a registry. “We kind of paused everything and we did this audit of the code base to make sure that any of the tools and products, whether they’re development tools or advertising tools or measurement tools, let’s make sure that people don’t have the ability to view stats or build features around sensitive categories.” Crowley was pleased to find out that Foursquare engineers had already siloed sensitive locations, like places of worship or LGBTQ support centers, into hidden categories that, save for the rare exception, would not be available to developers. Still, Foursquare has access to data on those hidden locations, even if it isn’t sharing it.
There is currently no federal law regulating what Foursquare can and cannot do with its user data. “Location data is one of the most sensitive forms of data,” says Vitak. “So we want to be sure that consumers have control over that data, that they can edit that data, that they can choose to remove pieces of data, that they just have more agency in that process of how that data is collected, what is collected, and what is done with it after it’s collected.” Vitak and other data-privacy experts say that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation is “far from perfect,” but it is a good guide for consumer protections.
Foursquare executives agree. “We do think the country needs a privacy legal regulatory framework akin to, or smarter than, the GDPR in Europe,” says Glueck. “We went out and implemented most of the GDPR rights globally, even though it’s only the law in Europe.” Should lawmakers ask Foursquare executives for input some sort of regulation, Crowley’s advice would be pretty straightforward: “Here’s what we do — now make everyone else do it.” But even if Crowley and Glueck have the best intentions, until there is federal oversight, they are a cork in a dam, accountable to themselves, investors, and one day, with a potential IPO looming, shareholders.