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Six months back I wrote a story about a tiny clip-on camera that shoots whatever is in front of you every 30 seconds all day long. At the time the startup's name was Memoto, but it has since been changed to Narrative and you can now buy it for $279 direct.
Wearable cameras once were high-tech accessories for secret agents only. Now anyone can have one, although the consumer version isn't as concealable as what the pros use. Taking pictures of everything and everyone you encounter is legal in most countries, and publishing those pictures without their permission is generally legal too, though it's not a great way to ingratiate yourself. It's a little creepy, but it's not as if you are stalking people with your nosey little brooch – unless, of course, you are.
If that's what you are into, stalking just got a whole lot easier. So much easier that you don't need to leave your home or wherever you happen to be to do it. Although you can't actually overhear them or watch what they are doing, you can now map the movements of maximum quantities of online friends in real time on your smartphone or home computer.
In a giant leap for busybodies, a San Francisco-based startup called connect.com recently unveiled an app that displays little images of your friends overlaid on a street map to show you where they are at the moment or recently were. The purpose, they say, it is to help you encounter people you know who may be in your vicinity, say at a restaurant, bar, supermarket or airport, to help you make face-to-face contact. I reckon we need more of that – and for free, who can resist?
To perform this magic, they simply ask you to enter your email contacts, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, LinkedIn contacts, and your buddies on sites such as Foursquare and Instagram. Connect's servers continuously monitor these services, sort out who is connected to whom, and send your app data about their whereabouts to anyone on your collection of contacts. The app also gives you a phonebook that contains all the contacts that Connect sucked up for you when you set it up. The phonebook is actually a database which you can search and filter results according to gender, profession, employer, and more, as well as by their proximity.
Why is this a big deal? Sites such as Foursquare have always been able to tell you if a buddy is nearby. But those services require them to sign up too, and often seem to tell you nobody's there. Connect can tell you where almost everyone you know online is anywhere in the world, or at least where they were when they last checked in on any social media platform, and – here's the deal – they don't have to subscribe to Connect themselves.
Earlier apps for tracking friends have relied mostly on GPS chips in handsets to report their locations. Connect doesn't do that, and in fact its co-founder Ryan Allis says that tracking people with GPS can be "creepy." Instead, Connect mines social media use to estimate everyone's whereabouts. Brilliant.
By all accounts, Ryan is a genius and a great guy who is concerned about empowering people by building social networks. He started out by founding a successful email marketing company in college that was bought out for a nice sum. Now, besides directing Connect, he's a student at Harvard Business School. Underneath his social idealism his heart seems to be in marketing.
Which makes one wonder what Connect's business plan is. When you visit the site, it provides zilch details about how it works. I guess Connect assumes the details are irrelevant because folks will think it's such a cool concept that they will rush to sign on, no questions asked. And it's quite possible that they are correct.
Almost effortlessly, Connect can integrate all its users' contacts and display real-time pictures of them onscreen. But in order to notify its users about what's happening in their circles, It must also collect all those connections on its own servers. As Connect can determine how everyone who uses it relates to almost everyone else they know online, it is in a position to parcel out those connections to paying customers. If it doesn't have corporate clients yet, it will soon.
Assembling this sort of database is an intelligence agent's wet dream. Think of all the hoops an analyst would have to jump through to figure out someone's entire social network. With access to Connect's database – or even without it – marketeers and government spooks could assemble all the contacts of anyone they choose to finger, as long as they participate in social networks. Then the online world will be their oyster.
So, under no circumstances would I encourage anyone to sign up at connect.com. The Web site doesn't say diddlysquat about what they are up to or how they do it. It just ask you to send them all your connections and it will organize them for you and let you know where to find them.
Uh-uh. The app is just a come-on and seems incidental to their business strategy. I see Connect as an emerging personal data broker, and believe it is likely to be a big player in that game – if it can get people to trust it.
I'm telling you not to. Now that you know what I know, let your contacts know that you will stop reaching out to them online if they sign on to Connect. Be blunt. Advise them that this is a convenience they will pay dearly for, even though it is free, and if they use it, that would be creepy for you and everyone else they call a friend.
If you want to know more, don't try this at home. Instead, see what using Connect is like at Yahoo Tech News.
@image: Photoshop collage of social media icons from www.iconarchive.com, San Francisco street map from www.openstreetmap.org, and the spooks' logo from the Federal government. The connect.com logo is in the middle, centered on its headquarters.