In Plain English: The ‘Who, What, When, Where, Why’ on Foursquare’s Privacy Policy


How many times have you signed up for a social network or other online service and clicked the mandatory “Agree” button without carefully reviewing the site’s “Terms and Conditions” fine print?


If you’re like the majority of people, this is something you do all the time. But this bad habit is just that — bad — and a serious trade-off with your personal privacy.

Take, for example, Foursquare. The popular location-based social network-slash-game encourages users to share their location with friends by “checking in” via a smartphone app or by text message. Its GPS technology shows users everything that is nearby, such as shops, restaurants, and public transportation. Users can win badges or become the “mayor” by checking in more frequently than anyone else at certain locations.

Foursquare is, by all accounts, the prom queen among social media apps: the service is fun and sociable, universally adored, and instantly likeable.

There’s even someone out there in the blogosphere who has created an @ferris_bueller Twitter account and used his fictional Ferris Bueller account to check in at various places using Foursquare. The account has since been deleted (“Bueller, Bueller?”) but not before Ferris checked into Wrigley Field.

Small business owners sing its praises for the ways it can help local businesses reach new customers and get existing ones to come back again and again. (Some claim it can even help to find a great deal on a burrito!)

Privacy Concerns

Foursquare, like other social networking sites, offers various security settings to add a layer of privacy protection. But most people forget that everything shared online has the potential to be shared publicly, archived, or linked to without your permission.

Consider the people behind, a site that points out the privacy risks inherent in broadcasting your address and current location online. The company says its motto (“Raising Awareness About Oversharing”) and mission “is not, and never has been, to have people burgled.”

Still, it is trying to point out the potential for misuse on sites like Foursquare. Last year, a hacker in San Francisco allegedly sprung a privacy leak on Foursquare and logged about 70% — or 875,000 check-ins – over a three-week period.

While some say Foursquare is changing the world, others worried about privacy have taken the drastic measure of unplugging from location-based services altogether.

The Privacy Policy Says…

So what exactly does Foursquare know and share about you?

If combing over full “legalese” minutiae is your thing, then check out the entire Foursquare privacy policy here. But if you just want a primer on the juicy privacy bits that actually could affect your day-to-day online security, then keep reading:

1. Who: Advertisers

Ads appearing on the Service may be delivered to users by our advertising partners, who may set cookies. These cookies allow the ad server to recognize your computer each time they send you an online advertisement to compile information about you or others who use your computer.

>>In Plain English?
Cookies collect information such as time of visit, pages visited, time spent on each page of the website, IP address, and type of operating system used. Sound creepy? If you don’t like online ad tracking or being a part of Google analytics, or you simply want to opt out of receiving behavioral advertisements from Foursquare’s advertising partners, then either click here or here.

2. What: Sharing Personal Info

What Personal Information Does Foursquare Collect

Personal Information You Provide to Us: We receive and store any information you enter on our Service or provide to us in any other way. The types of Personal Information collected may include your name, email address, phone number, birthday, Twitter and/or Facebook usernames, use information regarding the use of our Service, and browser information. The Personal Information you provide is used for such purposes as allowing you to set up a user account and profile that can be used to interact with other users through the Service, improving the content of the Service, customizing the advertising and content you see, and communicating with you about specials and new features. We may also draw upon this Personal Information in order to adapt the Services of our community to your needs, to research the effectiveness of our network and Services, and to develop new tools for the community.

Information Collected Automatically: When you use the Service, foursquare automatically receives and records information on our server logs from your browser or mobile platform, including your location, IP address, cookie information, and the page you requested. We treat this data as non-Personal Information, except where we are required to do otherwise under applicable law. Foursquare only uses this data in aggregate form. We may provide aggregate information to our partners about how our customers, collectively, use our site, so that our partners may also understand how often people use their services and our Service.

>>In Plain English?
If you share it (i.e., name or phone number), Foursquare can use it with advertisers or their company’s third-party contacts. Also, Foursquare uses cookies to track your habits on its website to share with third parties, though it says it does not include your personal identifiable information when it shares those details.

3. When: Clicking to Other Sites

The Service may contain links to other sites. Foursquare is not responsible for the privacy policies and/or practices on other sites. When linking to another site, you should read the privacy policy stated on that site. This Privacy Policy only governs information collected on the Service.

>>In Plain English?
Be careful when you click on any website found on Foursquare, as the company can’t guarantee your privacy once you leave the website.

4. Where: Foursquare Abroad

Will My Information Be Transferred To Another Country? Your Personal Information may be stored and processed in any country where we have facilities, and, by using the Service, you consent to the transfer of information to countries outside of your country of residence, including the United States, which may provide for different data protection rules than in your country.

>>In Plain English?
Foursquare might do some of its work abroad; foreign countries don’t abide by U.S. data-protection laws.

5. Why: Changes to the Privacy Policy

Will There Be Changes To This Privacy Policy? Foursquare may amend this Privacy Policy from time to time. Use of information we collect now is subject to the Privacy Policy in effect at the time such information is used. If we make material changes in the way we use Personal Information, we will notify you by posting an announcement on our Service or sending you an email. Users are bound by any changes to the Privacy Policy when he or she uses the Service after such changes have been first posted.

>>In Plain English?
The company will let you know when it makes changes to this privacy policy, but you’re stuck with whatever changes are made.

Need More Info?

In addition to the company’s transparent privacy policy detailed above, Foursquare also shares additional links about how it uses the data it collects, who sees it, and additional personal data choices:

If you use Foursquare and have a privacy question, you can also email the company at

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.

4 Responses

  1. Susie Jones says:

    I was looking for information about Privacy Online for my ebook and I came across your blog. The information contained in the article “In Plain English: The Who, What, Where etc…” was well presented and clear, easy to understand.

    I would like to include a link to your blog from within my ebook – it’s about Core Values, and living in the 3rd Millennium….. I have the web site built and the book is nearly finished and one of the things I am providing within the ebook is a resources page – I will also put the “Resources” on the web site as its own page. Would that be ok with you? I don;t want money and I will not be selling anything about you – just a link if people want to find out more.

    It is refreshing to find a site that actually had information – I am sick of what G**9le Serves up – mostly affiliate sales pages. Anyway – let me know what you think.

    Thank you

  2. Elaine Rigoli says:

    Susie — absolutely, please feel free to link to our website and mention us in the Resources section of your ebook. Good luck with all your research and send us a note when the book is ready for us to read. :)

  1. February 18, 2011

    […] your friends and third-party companies that partner with Foursquare.  If you check out our blog, “In Plain English: The ‘Who, What, When, Where, Why’ on Foursquare’s Privacy… you can find the detailed specifics about how your data is being shared and with whom.  There are […]

  2. October 19, 2011

    […] English” series of articles that has clarified the privacy policies of websites like Google, Foursquare, and Kayak, his efforts and infographic were even featured on […]

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