This App Tracks the People You Don't Like So You Can Avoid Them Forever

We might not have any privacy on social media, but we can have some in real life.

Mar 18 2014, 6:50pm

At first blush, Cloak—an "anti-social" app released yesterday on iOS—seems to be exactly what is wrong with startup culture. Instead of creativity for creativity's sake, Cloak looked like yet another novel way of disguising data mining. That's surface level. Dig a bit further, and Cloak gives users a different shade of privacy, while critiquing the state of data mining itself. 

Visitors to the Cloak website are met with the slogan, "Incognito mode in real life." It's more than a bit of cynical genius. "Avoid exes, co-workers, that guy who likes to stop and chat—anyone you'd rather not run into," reads the homepage. "Cloak scrapes Instagram and Foursquare to let you know where all your friends, 'friends,' and non-friends are at all times so you never have to run into that special someone. Think of it as the antisocial network."

The scraping of other apps is a vital point. Cloak itself doesn't scrape data—users' smartphones, enabled by social media, are doing the heavy lifting. Cloak simply piggybacks off social services already being used. "[Y]our phone is using your friends' Instagram and Foursquare data, but not us," said Cloak's creators, Brian Moore and Chris Baker, via email. "So that data lives locally, in front of you, but we here at Cloak are not seeing it." 

We advise the heavy use of the hate follow.

For Cloak to work, geo-tags, posts, updates, and social check-ins on Foursquare, Instagram, and other social networks must be enabled. That is how the scraping is done. Without it, Cloak is useless. In that way, it runs counter to the goal of increased user privacy. It's a monumental, if impossible, task to convince average smartphone users to disable geo-tagging and other location services, or avoid certain apps (like Foursquare) altogether. With Cloak, it's sort of like, "Ah, hell, let 'em have my data."

But Baker and Moore don't exactly see it that way. "There's two notions of privacy here," they said. "There's me posting a picture of me out to dinner on Instagram, and being fine with everyone in the world seeing that (social media privacy), and then there's me actually sitting at that same meal, across from a table filled with my ex-girlfriend's besties, in real life (IRL privacy)."

Baker and Moore said that we are now at the point where social media privacy is non-existent. "People are actively posting anything and everything to social networks with nary a care in the world," they added. "That is old news. All Cloak does is take that social media behavior and offer a little IRL privacy." With this clever redefinition of privacy, Baker and Moore admit social media privacy may be lost, but real life privacy needn't be. 

To exploit Cloak's full power, users must follow the social media feeds of people they dislike. It's counter-intuitive to everything we think about social media. "We advise the heavy use of the hate follow," said Baker and Moore. "Foursquare is great for the hate follow because no one's really checking that for content like Instagram." So, in an inversion of data mining, Cloak users keep a watchful eye on those they hate the most, using location data to avoid them like the plague. Peeping the habits, haunts, and urban wandering patterns of the hated is irrelevant.

Baker and Moore also emphasized that they aren't in the business of data mining. "Cloak does not collect any user data of any kind, and we definitely don't sell any information (because we don't have it anyway)," they added. "And we've got no plans to do so in the future." As a result, Cloak's privacy policy is fairly simple (though, like all privacy policies, subject to change):

1. We will never distribute, lend, share, sell or give your email address or other information to anybody, except as expressly provided in this privacy policy.

2. Our app utilizes your Instagram and Foursquare accounts to provide location data about people you know, but we do not collect, save, or see any information about your content. The app operates completely on your end without communicating anything back to us.

While Cloak may be a great satirical commentary, and useful for some IRL privacy, data mining (even if Cloak isn't directly performing it) is no laughing matter. The only consolation is that for those users who willfully neglect their privacy with Foursquare and Instagram, Cloak isn't going to do them any more harm. So, maybe, just maybe, people will use Cloak, have a few laughs, but also realize just how much of their data is out in the world. Or, they can just give in to the joy of the hate follow.