Everybody is either outraged or amused today by a new site called PleaseRobMe.com. The site displays an endless stream of live status updates from FourSquare, and until Twitter shut down the PleaseRobMe account, Twitter, by people telling the world that they're not at home. The seriously humorous idea is: Look at all these idiots broadcasting the vulnerability of their homes to robbery.
The site is worth a chuckle. But it also lays bare the very real truth that social networks and micro-blogs that reveal location data can be useful to crooks.
Unfortunately for Google, its new Google Buzz is especially ripe for this sort of exploitation.
Before I tell you how to rob somebody using Google Buzz, which I will below, let me first tell you why: 1) crooks are already figuring this out; and 2) the only defense is to be aware of threat. In other words, real crimes can happen only when burglars know about it and victims don't.
In other words, I'm telling you how to do this so you won't allow yourself to be victimized. Don't use Google Buzz to broadcast your location to the public!
How to rob somebody using Google Buzz:
1. Recruit a partner. You'll need two people working together to do this.
2. Find an area with a lot of restaurants, or places to shop, or any other place that will detain people for a while.
3. Fire up the Google Buzz mobile app (you'll need either Android or iPhone to comitt this particular crime).
4. Click on the "Nearby" button.
5. Wait for a sucker.
6. Soon enough, somebody will post something like, "Having breakfast with my parents." The post will tell you their name, and also the actual restaurant. Because you're using Buzz's "Nearby" feature, that restaurant will probably be within a minute or two walking distance.
7. Fire up a browser and search Google for the person's name, plus "site:google.com/profiles" with no quotation marks. It's very likely that a bunch of photos of your target will be found on the Profiles page. This will enable you or your partner to identify and watch the actual person have breakfast while the other robs the house.
8. Use one of the many address finders online, such as Peoplelookup.com to find the person's address.
9. While one crook watches the victim in the restaurant, the other breaks into the house (probably nearby), with the full knowledge that the victim is detained. If the victim leaves, a simple phone from the partner scoping out the victim call can alert the person actually breaking and entering so he can make a clean getaway.
Google Buzz is way more dangerous than PleaseRobMe because you search for targets only in the area where you physically are. Almost all the PleaseRobMe people are in far-off lands.
It's also worth pointing out that burglary is just one of the many crimes that could be committed using Google Buzz when people broadcast their locations. Another is any number of con scams.
For example, a con artist could find a person's post on Google Buzz, find the restaurant or whatever, read the profile, then approach that person with a con, armed with knowledge of name, occupation, employer, interests, activities and possibly even contacts. Such information is what cons are made of, and they normally require a lot of work to uncover. Buzz makes it easy.
The action item for you and me is: Don't broadcast your location to the public via Google Buzz!
The action item for Google is: Fix this now before the crime stories hit and further damage public trust. (I don't know what the fix is, but it could involve broadcasting only to followers, or at least a warning to posters that providing too much information could compromise personal security.)
UPDATE: Today there's a story in the Telegraph quoting an insurance expert who says insurance premiums could go up for people who use Buzz and other social networks. Darren Black is quoted as saying: "I wouldn't be surprised if, as social media grow in popularity and more location-based applications come to fore, insurance providers consider these in their pricing of an individual's risk. We could see rises of up to 10pc for people who use these sites. Criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their information gathering, even using Google Earth and Streetview to plan their burglaries with military precision. Insurance providers are starting to take this into account when they are assessing claims and we may in future see insurers declining claims if they believe the customer was negligent."
Mike Elgan is a Silicon Valley-based columnist, writer, speaker and blogger. Connect with Mike here: elgan.com