16 Sep 2010 8:21 am   //   Filed under: Technology

Your Facebook status will get you robbed. Uh, really?

Computers are scary! Eye strain, Internet addiction, identity theft, not to mention the fact that technology makes us isolated and alone. And now this: Burglars are monitoring your Facebook status, and will break in when you’re away.

Wait a minute. That makes no sense.

This latest wave of fear-mongering comes out of New Hampshire. Last week, WMUR published a story headlined, Police: Thieves Robbed Homes Based On Facebook, Social Media Sites:

NASHUA, N.H. — Nashua police are crediting an alert off-duty police officer who heard fireworks with cracking a burglary ring that targeted homes known to be empty because of Facebook postings…

“Be careful of what you post on these social networking sites,” said Capt. Ron Dickerson. “We know for a fact that some of these players, some of these criminals, were looking on these sites and identifying their targets through these social networking sites.”

The Nashua Telegram had a similar story, apparently based on the same September 9 press conference.

This story reverberated across the Internet over the weekend, and almost every tech blog I read linked to either WMUR or the Telegram, dutifully repeating the premise without skepticism. David Lohr of AOL News appears to be the only national-level reporter who tried to advance the story. He teased an additional quote out of a Nashua police official and found news reports of burglaries in two other states that were blamed on Facebook posts.

(Update, September 18: Jeff Jarvis also did some reporting on this, which I didn’t see until after I had researched this post.)

Let’s look at those other two cases. In one in Indiana, a couple told CBS that they think the man who burglarized them is someone they know, who learned on Facebook they were out at a concert. The family then posted photos of this person online, captured from their own personal surveillance video cameras. As for the other alleged burglary, in Tennessee, a family told a local TV station someone robbed their home as the result of a Facebook posting, but “Due to the ongoing police investigation, the McCubbins don’t feel comfortable discussing how they know the thief found them on Facebook.” Both cases seem odd.

Not much to go on, really. In the New Hampshire case, we don’t even know how many of the burglarized homes where chosen based on Facebook postings, or what the postings indicated. And in the other two, given that the families appear to have been victimized by people they know, couldn’t those “friends” have figured out they were away through some more conventional means? How good are these crooks at computers, anyway?

Suppose we accept the argument that criminals are scouring Facebook to find people who aren’t home. To test this, I spent a few minutes on Facebook trying to find residents of my neighborhood with status updates indicating they were away from their homes. I found none. You can’t search Facebook for those variables, so you’re reduced to hunting and pecking at random. The odds seem incredibly small that you’d find people who (a) identified themselves as out of town and, (b) could be connected to a specific residential address.

But let’s suspend disbelieve and say you could. Maybe you look at the RSVP lists for public events, such as concerts or rallies or conferences. Maybe you’re a wiz at the FourSquare and Twitter APIs and can follow the template of Please Rob Me to deduce where people are. Is that enough intelligence to break into somebody’s house?

I wouldn’t think so. Just because one person is away doesn’t mean a home is empty. You’d need to case the joint first. And if you’re going to do that, you might as well skip the Internet and just roam around looking for piles of newspapers in a driveway, or people strapping lawn chairs to the roofs of minivans.

Even if it’s happened two or three times, I’d argue the Facebook-to-robberies correlation is what Jack Shafer at Slate might call a bogus trend. It’s fueled by police departments doing their best to protect their citizens, and putting out some alarmist information in the process. Really, the risk of someone using your location for nefarious purposes is extremely low. It’s far lower than the threat that you’ll be the victim of a random crime.

This isn’t just nitpicking. It matters. We are about to enter a world where geo-location is always on. With location-aware devices like smart phones, your position will always be trackable (as will the position of your car, boat, bike, whatever). You already carry things that disclose your location, albiet to private databases (like the banking and cellular networks) rather than public ones (like Facebook). Eventually you will have the choice to make this data available to friends and family and the general public. Realtime, connected geo-location is so cheap, so simple, and has so many benefits that it will just happen naturally. It will almost certainly solve more problems than it causes. Obviously some information should always be kept secret. But we’re being told, by the police and the media, to always err on the side of caution when it comes to privacy. Let’s challenge that idea.

I have no problem announcing online when I’m traveling. It’s fun, it connects me with friends, and I enjoy bragging. Plus I have nothing to worry about. My home is secure because it is surrounded by a moat teeming with hungry sharks. Do you doubt me? Check it out for yourself — It says so right there on the Internet.