Facebook has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the creator of a controversial app that lets Instagram users track their friends locations, in what appears to be a renewed effort to clamp down on flagrant abuses of its user-data rules. The move comes as the Facebook-owned photo-sharing app attempts to secure its platform in the wake of a Business Insider investigation revealing that a buzzy marketing startup, Hyp3r, had been harvesting millions of users data, tracking their locations, and saving their stories.
Whos in Town, built by the developer Erick Barto, is a service that monitors the locations of people you follow on Instagram. It does so by keeping an ongoing record of where your connections tagged their posts and stories. By recording this data over time, the app is able to build a detailed map of peoples movements.
Its a similar concept to the data scrapping that Hyp3r engaged in — though Hyp3r used the collected data for advertising and marketing purposes, while Whos in Town is geared toward ordinary people who want to see their contacts locations. The purpose, Barto said, was to highlight the amount of data people are sharing online all the time, how Instagram makes it easily available for collection, and how it can be misused.
The reason we made Whos in Town is first and foremost to show people how much data they are sharing and to ask themselves if they are OK with how much and who they are sharing it with, Barto wrote in an email. If [Facebook and other platforms] found a way to provide developers access to use some data without the ability to centralize it (ie using it only on the end users device), like Whos in Town does, it would allow for great products to be built in a safe way.
But the first step towards that would have to be shutting down the backdoors used by hundreds of unauthorized [developers] today, Barto added. On Thursday, lawyers for Instagram sent Barto a formal cease-and-desist letter, demanding that he immediately close down his app and account for all data that was collected.
Barto shared the letter with Business Insider, and you can read it in full below. We represent Facebook, Inc., based in Menlo Park, California. It has come to Facebooks attention that you are scraping and storing Instagram users login credentials and location data for monetary gain, an attorney at the Perkins Coie law firm wrote.
Facebook demands that these activities stop immediately. Barto has also had his personal Facebook account disabled. A screenshot of Whos in Towns iOS App Store listing, which shows how the app displays your Instagram contacts last tagged locations. Apple App Store Whos in Town first got widespread attention in July after Wired wrote a feature about the app and Barto, and it was subsequently covered elsewhere.