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Find My Friends: Voluntary Stalking Made Simple

By Paul Hartsock MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 18, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Find My Friends: Voluntary Stalking Made Simple

Find My Friends, an app from Apple, is available for free at the App Store.

Find My Friends
Find My Friends

Here's an app so powerful it's apparently broken up a marriage less than a week after it hit the App Store shelves.

OK, fine, what really broke up the marriage was probably the cheating, or at least the suspicion of cheating. The app just revealed a little sneaking around. And that's presuming the whole story's even true at all -- it was first spotted on a MacRumors forum, where anyone can post almost anything. Fact or fiction, it goes like this:

A guy loaded Apple's new Find My Friends app to his wife's iPhone and activated it, unbeknownst to her. Later she headed out, claiming to go visit a friend's house. He kept tabs on her location and found she was nowhere near that friend's house -- instead, she was somewhere across town, which was apparently enough for her husband to conclude that she was with another guy.

Hopefully others will have a more pleasant reason to use Find My Friends. When it's being used by people who know what it does and are aware it's been activated, it can be a very a practical and convenient way to keep up with others' whereabouts when it's appropriate to do so -- and fall off the radar when it's time for privacy.

Social Radar

Find My Friends officially falls under the "social networking" category in Apple's App Store. But I think it's really more of a social utility than a network.

Location-based social networks do exist -- look at FourSquare for an example. But Find My Friends doesn't turn location-marking into a game the way FourSquare does. You don't need to check into locations, and nobody becomes the mayor of anything. You're not encouraged to become friends with your friends' friends like on Facebook. Instead, it's more of a social radar. Going to an enormous music festival with a big group and want to make sure you can easily meet up if someone wanders off? This is your app.

You'll need iOS 5 in order to use Find My Friends. As you open the app for the first time, you'll sign in using your Apple ID (usually an email address) and password.

Once it's running, you'll get a chance to see the app's much-derided buckskin leather look. I'm really not sure what this is trying to mimic. Is it implying that using this makes you a modern-day urban frontiersman?

But the leather look is really just window dressing. The real purpose of the app is to make like the name and find your friends. When you start, you have no friends, so it's time to send out some invites.

Cross-compatibility isn't one of Find My Friends' strong suits. It's a closed system -- it doesn't integrate with other location-tracking services, and it's only available on devices running iOS 5.

To send out friend invites, select some email addresses from your Contacts list, add a personal message if you want, then send away. Those who already have Find My Friends (and whose Apple IDs are associated with the email address you sent to) will get the message within their version of the app itself. Others will find the message in their regular in-boxes. Those who accept will allow you to follow their location. They'll probably also want the ability to track yours, so expect to get requests in return.

There's no integration with other social networks -- you can't automatically carpet-bomb your Facebook roster with invitations, for example. That's just as well. Location-sharing is to me much more personal than a simple Facebook or Twitter connection, so I've opted to keep my permanent Friends list extremely small.

Followers and Followees

Once you're being followed by someone, they can discover your location, or at least the location of your phone, at any time, with three exceptions: 1) When your phone is turned off or otherwise off the grid, 2) After you've deleted that person from your list of followers, or 3) when you go into Hide mode, which you find under the Me menu at the bottom of the screen.

Note that deleting someone from the list of people you're following is different than deleting a person from your list of people allowed to follow you. Also, you can still see the locations of other people when you're in Hide mode. There might be situations in which it's completely appropriate to track someone without letting them track you, but I can't think of one offhand at the moment.

One of Find My Friends' best features is the Temporary mode found in the top-level menu. This allows you to set up select windows of time, adjustable to the half-hour, in which you're able to follow another person and let him or her follow you. Once the time window has expired, you're unfindable to each other and will have to submit new requests to once again appear on each others' maps.

This is nice for two reasons. 1) People forget. If you really want to be visible to this person only for a select amount of time, but then you forget to manually turn off access for days/weeks/months, it leaves you with a very strange feeling. Have I been secretly stalked? Meh, probably not. But what if ... OK, time to stop thinking! 2) A temporary invitation that automatically expires just seems smoother than actively de-friending someone.

Other location-tracking apps I've used tend to turn an iPhone into a hand-warmer. They constantly run up the GPS to determine your location, which can suck a fully charged battery dry within a couple of hours. This is why it's usually a good idea to put your phone in a charger cradle if you use a car navigation app.

But with Find My Friends, even though it will tell my followers where I am any time they ask (when I'm not in Hide mode, of course), I've never once felt the phone get warm, and my daily battery usage hasn't increased to a degree that I'm able to notice.

I can even be found when the app is running in the background, and after it's been killed. This is apparently thanks to new location features found in iOS 5. It's an advantage and a liability. You don't have to babysit it by keeping it running in the background all the time, but you must be aware that quitting doesn't make you invisible. Use that Hide mode.

Bottom Line

Find My Friends is a simple, easy-to-understand location-tracking app that could come in handy in lots of situations. If you want to broadcast your location only under very specific circumstances, you can keep it in Hide mode most of the time or just never send out any friend invites, using only the Temporary feature. If you're a little more open about your whereabouts, you can leave it on constantly with no big bite out of your battery. Just be careful who you friend.

Unfortunately, this app is only for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch users, and it's unclear whether there will ever be any cross-compatibility to other platforms. But its simplicity makes it highly approachable and doesn't leave you feeling that a bunch of tricky settings may have left you without a firm grip on your privacy -- as long as you know it's on your phone in the first place.

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