Starting some time in the middle of last week, much of the social media related news coverage has been dominated by the so called ‘positivity app’ Peeple that proposes to let people give ratings about other people, and the outright negative response it has elicited in the vast majority of people (including us). Since any such endeavor obviously steps into a massive “ethics minefield”, CaSMa was naturally attracted to looking into this a bit more.
In case anyone hasn’t heard of the Peeple app yet, or forgotten about is already, Peeple described itself as “Yelp for people”. An app that will allow you to post ratings about a person so that other people who might want to consider doing business of having a date with that person can get a sense of what to expect. Or at least that’s how the founders of the app like to talk about it. The general response in the (social) media was to look at the proposed app in the context of the real world and pointed out that anyone with a grudge, or a bad sense of humour, would be able to use it to make other people look bad. Even with the strongest levels of moderating by the app founders it could still get abused to “damn someone through faint praise”, e.g. “Bob is OK, we went on a date and he didn’t steal anything from me [even though everything about him got me convinced that he would nick my purse]”.
While I agree that the idea that an app like this would get used only for positive happy purposes is incredibly naive, the think that really caught my attention is that Peeple intends to allow users to create profiles for someone else – anyone else. They state: “You will need their cell phone number to start their profile and they will receive a text that you were the person to do so and that they should check out what you said about them on our app.” But the website’s FAQ doesn’t say what Peeple would do in cases where the phone number given doesn’t belong to the person for whom a profile is being made.
The site also states that only those who have joined the app and agreed to the terms and conditions can see the information it contains. But combined with the previous statement that looks a lot like someone else can create a profile for you, without your consent, which you cannot see without joining the app. It sounds almost like a way of pressurising people into joining. A cynic might interpret this as a shrewd strategy to promote rapid growth in the number of registered users for the app, which will make it more appealing to advertisers and investors.
However, in the UK any restriction that prevented people seeing the data on them held by the app would be in violation of the right of subject access under the Data Protection Act 1998, which gives everyone the right to request a copy of the data held by any organisation holding or processing their personal data. Would a Peeple profile created by someone else come under this definition? Under the legislation, personal data is defined as:
… data which relate to a living individual who can be identified (a) from those data, or (b) from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller, and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller or any other person in respect of the individual.
In this context the ratings on Peeple are similar to tax records, bank statements or health records: they are personal information about you.
There was actually another article in the Conversation about Peeple at the same time, only over in the US version of the site, which looked more at the history of such apps. Do look it up to learn about how many previous attempts there have been and how they have all failed.
Update: Since the whole media storm about the Peeple app started last week, the original websites and social network pages related to Peeple have been taken down and replaced by a simple message that there will be a new announcement on October 12th.