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How Periscope Can Fix Its Creepiest Feature

Location tagging is one of Periscope's best features, but many people are unknowingly revealing their home addresses. Here's one solution.

How Periscope Can Fix Its Creepiest Feature
[Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

While using the new live-streaming app Periscope this weekend to broadcast video of my pet rabbit to 30 strangers around the world, I realized something rather alarming: The location of my apartment was viewable on a map accompanying my stream. I knew that Periscope showed my general position—Brooklyn, New York—but I did not know until then that one could zoom in to see the exact location, with street names labeled. I imagine that other many Periscope users are not aware that their locations are pinpointed and viewable in this way.

Periscope, launched by Twitter last Thursday, allows people to broadcast live video and audio from their phones to the Internet. Viewers tune in mid-stream and can submit comments or hearts (to indicate they like what they see) that pop up in real time over the feed. It's an unusually, pleasantly intimate form of social media that is instantly addictive.

When you open the Periscope app, you see a list of live feeds from around the world, many of which are tagged by city. The location tagging is an important feature—when I was reporting a story about the building explosion in Manhattan last week, for example, I was able to choose streams marked "New York" to find live video of the fire from people on the street. To view the map during a stream, you swipe right, and then pinch to zoom in or out.

Based on my experience using the app over the past five days, it is clear that many, if not most, streams are coming from users' homes: Popular subjects this weekend included pets, meals, and teenagers in their bedrooms talking into the camera. Indeed, the first Periscope-wide meme involves commenters asking to see inside the broadcaster's refrigerator. By zooming on the map feature, I was easily able to view what appeared to be the locations of other users' homes. (Smartphones aren't reliably precise when reporting location to apps, so what seems to be an exact location may not be all that exact.)

Instagram pinpoints users' locations in the same way when the "add to photo map" option is toggled on. This feature caused some trouble for Michelle Obama in February when a Fusion reporter noticed that the First Lady was revealing her whereabouts through the photo map.

It is simple to disable location tagging before starting a stream—just tap the arrow icon above the "start broadcast" button—but I believe that diminishes one of the main joys of using Periscope, which is knowing that the stream you are viewing is coming from Paris, or Manhattan, or Sao Paulo. A user could always type their city into the title of a stream, but that's a bit of a drag, and way too easy to falsify.

Periscope's developers could remedy this issue in a few ways. They could add an intermediate tier of location sharing: perhaps a button that says "show city only." This would encourage more users to leave geotagging enabled, which will be important if Periscope eventually introduces a search function that allows users to find videos by region. Alternatively, the developers could make it so that the map that accompanies streams does not zoom in enough to reveal an exact location.

When I tested the accuracy of Periscope's map function with my editor Harry McCracken, the red pin icon showed him to be between Liberty Street and Cedar Street in downtown Manhattan. Actually, he was standing outside his hotel at the corner of Washington Street and Albany Street, about two blocks away. Close, but not exact. When he tested the function while I streamed video from the Fast Company offices, he was able to view my location down to the intersection. Unless Periscope changes the way it displays location, users who wish to keep their addresses private would be wise to disable geotagging when streaming from home.

Update 4/2/2015: In an app update released Thursday, Periscope disabled the zoom function on the map.

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