Here is an idea for a fun game. Imagine playing with online trading cards, where you’re buying and selling virtual people.
Like baseball cards – remember those? Except instead of baseball players, they’re real people, pulled from real people’s Twitter accounts. Like yours! If you use Twitter, some player might be buying and selling you right now, without your knowledge or permission. And if they “own” you, they can write anything they want on your “trading card”. Sounds fun, right?
Actually, it sounds mega gross. But that’s the basic idea behind Stolen, a brand-new app by a company called Hey, Inc. that promises to let you “collect and trade your favorite people on Twitter!” Essentially, the app crunches all kinds of publiclyavailable data about your Twitter account to assign you a monetary value in pretend money which the game calls “social currency”, and then other users can spend virtual money to become your “owner”. Your value will continue to depend on how many people are competing to buy you in a constantly-fluctuating market, and, of course, you cannot be the owner of your own account.
Although Stolen is currently in an invitation-only limited rollout, it’s already generating plenty of buzz. Gadgette tech journalist Holly Brockwell was minding her own business on Twitter when someone sent her a screenshot of her account, emblazoned with a sunshine-yellow banner declaring that “BOOM! HOLLY BROCKWELL BELONGS TO YOU NOW”, an experience she says was “disquieting”.
She received an apology from Hey, Inc CEO Siqi Chen, and in her published conversation with Chen voiced an important concern. For some users, particularly women who are often targeted for being visible in their field, this type of bidding war over their personal profiles is more than unwelcome, it’s disturbing. Lauren Hockenson from The Next Web was also skeeved to find out she’d been “owned”. For lots of women who are public speakers, writers or outspoken voices in technology, constant grief from trollish or abusive Twitter users is already an anxiety-inducing fact of life even without the ability for stalkers, haters and creeps to “own” you. It’s becoming all too common that we should expect all-dude development teams (the only woman listed at Hey, Inc is in operations) to be completely clueless about this.
Still, an app like this is a minefield of privacy concerns for anyone – especially as it seems there’s currently no plan to filter or moderate what users can write on your card once they own it. A reader sent Brockwell a picture of insurance brand eSurance’s card scrawled with obscenities, for example. Clearly it didn’t occur to anyone at the company to think for a moment of anyone who might not like this.
Although Chen clearly makes earnest attempts to accommodate and address Brockwell’s concerns in their interview, his position is ultimately chilling. The app isn’t actually about “buying and selling and owning” anybody, it’s about uh, “stealing and trading” instead, he insists. The company is going to change the language to reflect that, he promises, even though the virtual currency still stands and users are still using it to buy, that is, uh, steal people. And anyway, he goes on, you can’t possibly be buying people because it’s not real money, even though you can buy Stolen’s virtual currency with in-app purchases.
And Chen also seems to feel that because Stolen uses Twitter’s API it’s perfectly natural that users should just get signed up to be cards in the game without their knowledge or permission, that’s, y’know, like, just what you sign up for when you use a social network. But Brockwell’s pointed questions made it clear that some people might want an opt-out option, so Stolen has added one. But this asks for extensive access to your Twitter account in order to register the opt-out. Don’t want to do that? Send Stolen a DM on Twitter to opt-out, because that is totally a scientific way to manage privacy complaints.
The round condemnation Stolen has received in the tech press in the two weeks since its soft launch is heartening, but this isn’t the first time an app developer has attempted to foist a gross privacy minefield upon users in the bright guise of “social economy”. Public backlash also forced a roll-back of unwanted “features” for the app Peeple, which purports to let everyone give you a “star rating” – as a person – as if you were a service provider like Yelp, whether you want such a listing or not.
Complaints and push-back usually prompt these sorts of Silicon Valley “upstarts” to apologetically revise their services, which suggests they thought it was all totally fine and exciting before swathes of users started trying to wiggle out of their squicky grasp. There is a trend in this encroaching intimacy from apps, a sort of presumptuousness – we should have noticed long ago that the only interest social media platform holders and app developers have in the things we post, share and interact with online lies in how they can have it for themselves, no matter how they pretend and protest, hands spread wide in playful, loving entreaty.
Watch out for tech that sidles up, pawing at our humanity, unwanted but insistent. It’s not always as overt as Stolen or Peeple. Every morning, now, Facebook entreats that it cares about me, Slack tells me to have a good day – Hey, Inc has another successful app called Heyday, that sweetly promises to help me “remember every day of my life just by living.”
Most of us know abstractly that our privacy is at risk across the platforms and services we use – like how Facebook started serving me wedding ads before I’d even told anybody I was getting married. But there’s another type of violation to look out for in this idea of our digital selves as public property. We think we are the sole arbiter of our existence online, but platform holders and app developers are hungry for ways to “collect” us, to build their business opportunities on our aggregate cries out into the universe. And unless you know to protest, to opt out, to interrogate this pretend intimacy, this warm, smiling Silicon Valley jelly, it will continue to encroach.
• Update: Stolen appears to have closed down, as of 14 January
This article was written by Leigh Alexander, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th January 2016 14.24 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010