Moral Panic: PleaseRobMe Is Today's Equivalent Of Freaking Out About Answering Machines In 1983

from the or-i-could-just-stand-outside-of-your-home dept

For the last few weeks there’s been all this talk about some site called PleaseRobMe that uses Twitter’s API to post the Tweets of people (mainly using location “check-in” service Foursquare) announcing that they’re “not home.” The site claims it’s just “raising awareness” of the potential hazards of announcing your location — though, plenty of people have pointed out that a more effective way of seeing that someone is not home is watching them leave in the morning. But this sort of moral panic over location information is not new. Consumerist points us to a fun post at Waxy that highlights two similar stories from decades past. First, there’s the fear from 1983 that answering machines would alert people to the fact you weren’t home (as if just not answering the phone wouldn’t?). The second is from 1977, and suggests people not publish funeral or wedding announcements in the newspaper, since that alerts potential burglars that you’ll be out as well.

The thing is, if a burglar wants to find out if you’re out, there are lots of ways to do that, outside of modern technology. Fearing that this is one more way to do so doesn’t seem particularly productive.

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Comments on “Moral Panic: PleaseRobMe Is Today's Equivalent Of Freaking Out About Answering Machines In 1983”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

A missed opportunity?

PleaseRobMe seemed all in good fun at first, but now there is all this lofty stuff about joining a foundation and such, which is a little much for a site that still has a cartoon burglar at the top.

But while the robbery angle does indeed reek of moral panic, there is something in the philosophy that could have been good if they had taken it further. It is true that a lot of people reveal more about themselves online than they realize, and I am sure there are plenty of smart criminals out there who have become adept at mining and synthesizing that information. It’s conceivable, perhaps likely, that some have even built software tools to aid them in doing so.

So why not a site that really helps you understand your identity online? A free PI that you can hire to investigate yourself or, of course, others – I am very much of the opinion that if information is available, it should be brought to the surface, because otherwise it will surely arise at the worst possible time. I know some such online discovery tools exist, but I haven’t seen one that really digs deep, or that highlights the importance of understanding what you reveal about yourself online. They would have to drop the scare-tactics and not bark about privacy and how you should hide everything, and instead focus on awareness and judiciousness.

Now, as far as PleaseRobMe goes, what we need is some sort of aggregate burglary scheme…

Derek Bredensteiner (profile) says:

Re: A missed opportunity?

I’d agree there was a better statement to be made there, aside from just “Don’t say anything ever or the interwebz will get you!”. I’m not sure that pleaserobme (or anyone else) said it, but the concept is there. I think raising privacy awareness (the lack thereof) is a worthwhile endeavor, it’s too bad that’s not what’s being taken away from this.

Yes, you’re putting a lot of information about yourself online. No, this isn’t something to freak out about any more or less than you should freak out about the information you’re already sending out in many other ways (like Mike’s examples). Yes, you should still be aware of the information you’re broadcasting and this site was perhaps one tiny step in the right direction towards that.

PEBKAC (profile) says:

While making funeral arrangements for my dad this past July, the funeral director mentioned something about getting robbed while out at the funeral, forget the circumstances though. So that one’s still in play.

(He also told us not to mention the location of the funeral luncheon until we were at graveside, to keep out “the freelunchers”…must say, that cracked me up, it seemed so absurd yet believable.)

You can’t rob homes over the internet, your physical presence is necessary to do this. Therefore it makes no difference if you’re declared ‘not home’ on the web or not, the information isn’t reliable or necessarily up to date. There’s always a risk for the burglar that they’ll run into a human (or protective pet) during a robbery. They could get lucky and you’re out to dinner around the corner, or food shopping. Or at work. Or visiting. Or any of the million things we all do out of the home that don’t get announced on the web.

Or they’re armed and don’t care if you’re home or not, so lock your doors and hide, yeah?

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

It’s one thing to know if someone is home or not … it’s another thing to know where that home is.

Not to mention roommates, spouses, family members … just because one person isn’t home doesn’t mean the house is empty. Alarm systems, guard pigs, booby traps … just because no one is home doesn’t mean it’s safe. Security cameras, webcams, motion cameras … just because it’s empty & safe doesn’t mean no one is watching.

Generally, most homes that will be empty are empty between 9am and 5pm, so anyone looking to rob someone would do better to just go driving around at 8:30am and watch people leave their homes to go to work. And those who don’t work probably don’t have anything worth stealing anyway.

And as low tech as you can get, someone came to our door during the day once and asked about a missing dog. Now think about that. Someone can go around and knock on people’s doors during the day when most people are at work … if someone answers “have you seen my lost dog?” … if no one answers, start looking for an open window.

I think a Twitter or Facebook status update saying “I’m going to run some errands” is really the ‘least of people’s concerns if they’re looking to protect their property.

G. Steve Arnold says:

Mike, you're wrong about this one.

There is a huge difference between PleaseRobMe and directly watching for someone to leave their house in the morning: efficiency.

If I want to watch you leave your house, I have to go to your house and wait. That’s expensive for me because I have to spend my own time and resources sitting there doing nothing to collect the information. Maybe I can to three or four people a day, maybe one, maybe ten. The point is that I have to be choosy about who I target, lest I waste my time. PleaseRobMe automates the data collection, not just for you, but for potentially millions of people simultaneously. I don’t have to invest time and effort in choosing worthy targets; I can go to a web site and get an instant onscreen report of 10 likely candidates near my location a couple of minutes.

The same argument applies to the GPS vehicle tracking used by law enforcement to track suspects. Some have argued that GPS vehicle tracking is no different than being followed by a uniformed police officer.


If the police department wants to tail you, they have to pay a police officer to sit in a car, they have to pay for the car, they have to pay for gas, etc. There is a cost to the police department that they must consider in making the determination that you are worth following. Therefore they only invest the resources in following people that are likely to be guilty. (NOTE: Going against this limitation “on a hunch” is actually the plot of many cop movies; “Beverly Hills Cop”, for one…) All of that cost structure goes out the window when your location and activity information becomes so cheap that law enforcement no longer have to be choosy in who they follow. If it only costs a few bucks apiece to follow people, why not follow everyone, no matter how guilty they are likely to be?

I believe this is the REAL fundamental privacy question we are going to be struggling to resolve. Before IT made information cheap, there was a naturally existing economic constraint that forced the seekers and consumers of information to be selective. As we realize that this constraint is losing its effectiveness, we will be forced to redefine some of our old ideas of “privacy”, “search/seizure” and “probable cause” to take this into account.

Don’t believe me? How much does it cost your company to staff and fund an IT department? Why do companies invest in software systems? Why bother if it’s no different? Efficiency increases the value of information and unfortunately, where privacy is concerned, that value has not been addressed with the compensatory costs necessary to limit abuse.

romeosidvicious (profile) says:

Re: Mike, you're wrong about this one.

Mike’s not wrong. I use foursquare and check in places. I do this when I am out with my wife and there is a babysitter with the kids at my house, when the kids are somewhere else with a sitter and my wife and I are out, and when I am out alone. There is no way to tell if we are out with each other, out separately, if only one of us is home, or how long we will be gone from the house based on a check-in.

So to be useful for a criminal:

1. Criminal has to know the person’s online persona and real life identity in order to:
2. Know the person’s home address and then criminal still has to:
3. Check out the home to make sure said person is really gone by the time they arrive and still:
4. Make sure no-one else is home and still has to deal with:
5. No knowing how long said person will be gone from the house.

In contrast to:
1. Know someone has a job and sit near their house to:
2. Watch someone leave for work and be able to:
3. Discern the house is empty

In the more traditional situation the person doesn’t even have to be known in any manner to the criminal and it takes less effort to discern the same information on the victim. Criminals are, by their nature, lazy and as such spending the time to track down and link online personas to physical addresses, which they still have to check out, and then wait until said person checks in somewhere that’s not their home along with being ready to head out and hit the house while they are gone. To put it bluntly it is much easier to pick a random joe-schmo with an obvious 9-5 gig who threw away the box his big screen TV came in than it is to do all the crap necessary to put the pieces together for using social networking to pick victims.

Your average burglary is random and most likely picked from what can be seen through windows or high end gadget packaging in the trash and it will remain that way because it’s just easier. Your high end robberies are planned well in advance and honestly social networking wouldn’t add much to the planning stages of one of those. To top it off the average user of one of these services wouldn’t have high end criminals looking at them to begin with.

You are also wrong about the whole “I can go to a website and get an instant onscreen report of 10 likely candidates near my location”. First off these services give you the current location of the persons using them and not their home address, second off you’d have to know whether or not they have anything worth taking, and thirdly you’d have to know who the hell they are outside of their online persona. Most of this would elude the crackhead breaking in to get money for a fix, the low end scumbag who wants high tech gadgets, and would add much to the high end criminals MO. So, you, like the venerable pleaserobme site are not taking everything into account and simply repeating provably wrong talking points in an attempt to put feat into people where there doesn’t need to be any.

If a criminal is already targeting you then there stands a chance they might be able to use social networking to figure out when you were gone but without it they can simply use a physical presence and not posting to social networking sites won’t have an affect on their choice to rob you. The best defense against any of this is to not toss out things that make it obvious you are a good target for a robbery. It matters more what you have that’s worth taking than where you are at any given time because we live in a target rich environment. So make someone else a better target by not broadcasting what sort of crap you have.

Rob says:

RE: Steve Arnold


With regards to the specific case at hand – robbing someone’s home – you’re very wrong. Sitting outside someone’s house is a MUCH better way to rob them. An effective robbery requires you to target a specific individual or residence. There’s a lot more to learn than whether or not the person’s home. The vast majority of people, by the nature of our 9-to-5 society, aren’t home during the day. So simply by having a job you’re broadcasting a huge window of time that you’re not home. But there’s a lot more to it than that, anyway. Does the house have a gate? Is it locked? Is there a fence? Is there a window you can break to get in? Is there an alarm system? Do they have a dog? Is there anyone else living in the house, and are they home? Do their neighbors have a good view of what’s going on? Is it a busy street? Etc, etc, etc. This is information best uncovered by casing out a house for a few days. Sure, some of it might be a bit easier to learn online, but not a whole lot. The point of this article is much simpler than what you’re extrapolating: Posting your location on Twitter doesn’t put you at much more risk for burglary than doing any number of other non-internet activities, and while it’s a good thing to be aware of, panicking about it seems silly.

G. Steve Arnold says:

Re: RE: Steve Arnold

I’m not advocating that a web site can replace casing joints, only that it makes finding joints worthy of casing more efficient. You are correct that you still have to go through the evaluation and diligence you specified, but if you know someone is home, there’s no point. Why waste an hour per house per day picking houses at random maybe getting lucky when you can have the web site spit out a list of high-probability targets? Success in burglary, just like everything else, is s all about volume. 😉

Anyway, this is all academic because if I were an enterprising young burglar, I’d get a job at the water company. They recently put a radio meter in my house that radios my water usage back to the central office every 12 hours.


How could that kind of reporting frequency possibly be useful for billing purposes? The only reason you’d want to know is to track my usage habits in real time.

So, SQL database, show me a list of houses where the total water usage over the last three days is less than one gallon….

Anonymous Coward says:

All these panics seem to rely on the idea that criminals, specifically low level criminals, are super smart and organised. In my experience, that simply isn’t the case.

Someone who breaks into a home either just strolls around a neighbourhood seeing which houses are empty (which is extremely easy to do; if you’ve never tried it, just try guessing which houses are occupied and which are empty next time you’re out) and going for the empty ones. Or they just pick a house at random and go for it, usually at night.

Anyone organised enough to check a website and then somehow link a twitter account to a real life address isn’t going to go and rob a house. They’re either going to have a decent job in the first place (or looking for one) or they’re going to be targetting better places, like shops and gas stations.

And I’m not denying the existence of organised housebreakers, ‘cos, y’know, they exist. But they’re either experienced enough to not need a website to tell them a house is empty, or they’re crazy/agressive enough to not care if it is.

Michial Thompson (user link) says:

Re: Re:


I’d have to beg to differ with you on this one. I work with Law Enforcement daily, and one of my sites host the mugshots for the jails. I regularly get calls from criminals trying to convince me to take their mugshots off the web.

At least one in 3 or 4 manage to find my cell number which is not published online, and in at least one case I’ve actually had them know my home address.

While I haven’t gotten all paranoid and actually tried to hide my identity or contact information, I haven’t went out of my way to make that information easy to find either.

After one particular call I actually went out looking to see if I could figure out how they got the information and wasn’t even able to figure it out myself.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

How do you know they didn’t call your station, pretending to be someone else, and got your number and info from someone in your place of work? And then once one of them gets your info, it can get passed around. I wouldn’t be surprised that criminals on your website might actually know each other in some regard.

You say our cell phone number isn’t published on-line, so they obviously aren’t using the Internet to get the information. And they likely aren’t using the Internet to stake out people to rob.

Social hacking is almost always the easiest way to get information … the least secure computer is the one in the human head.

Emmanuel Carabott (profile) says:

I tend to disagree with classifying this as trivial. On the other hand its not the end of the world either. I do see this as a higher risk then an answering machine or a funeral announcement however. A robber who wanted to exploit this can get something out of this that he cannot get easily with any other method. Thats Trends. A program can easily monitor each person for patterns automatically and report by their geographical location as well.

However for me the point I hope pleaserobme conveys is how careless some people share information with the world. I am not saying sharing is a bad thing but I do think that such social networks have made some people too careless. I think many people think that what they’re sharing will be seen by their closed friends only and not potentially anybody. I think that having people realize that the information they publish online can have consequence is a good thing for everyone.

Also I do not agree with that robbers do not have the knowhow to pull this off. Never underestimate the technical knowledge of anyone. It already happens, thats what scammers are all about.

bArlington (user link) says:

Dont Panic

Gee I dont know. People act stupid and leave themselves exposed.

Answering Machine? There are simple steps to mitigate risk. A ringing phone inside a house or apartment (as in ringing and ringing) is certainly an indication that no one is home. Solution is an answering machine, on a short ring cycle, not near the window.

This and locking your doors, and cutting off newspaper delivery, and having a neighbor watch over your house…. there all simple things to make you safer.

You characterize this as paranoia. Its just risk mitigation. And if you make a habit of it, its no big deal – just like locking a door when you leave for the day.

Oh and adopt a rescue dog. That cuts your chances of getting robbed real low!

steve (user link) says:

Burglary in Broad Daylight

I minute this video begins we had just pulled out of the garage and driveway. Later in the day when we returend from shopping we drove into the driveway to find our garage door had been shot with fluorescent orange paintballs. We beleive this was a signal to the getaway driver called by cell phone – yes this is where you need to park so we can run out with the goods (Pick-up truck). Later we got a call from a friend that someone was selling TV sets near us in an apartment complex. These two had another accomplice or the driver selling the goods. I also video taped these people on a third floor balcony. Took 5 hours for the cops to show up. Made DVDs and still photos of my surveillance cameras, what I found to them, they did nothing and didn’t even knock on the door of these people. I made flyers (Typical old west wanted style) of the people in the video and posted them in the neighborhood, any business with a shop window who wouldn’t help out I boycotted. I harvested 4500 email addresses in my community and did a mass email with the YouTube link. A major metropolitan newspaper picked up the idea and put it on their front page, and the story was in 4 total pages. I keep an eye on the neighborhood and while walking around one day, I think I spotted the main thief sitting on a stair well in the apartments across the street way in the back. He went into his apartment upstairs, and did not recognize me. They had a clear view of my garage from one of their bedroom through some trees. My wanted posters must have turned up the heat, because this family moved. About a year and a half later we learned that the apartment that the possible get-away driver I video taped burned to the ground. A person died in it, it wasn’t this guy. A smoker who lived next door, dropped his cigarette and fell asleep (see smoking does kill). So does the universe sort these types out? The neighborhood may be just a bit safer! So the locals are casing your place – I think Google maps will help the well planned burglary and that with an intelligent mind is far more dangerous than a discussion online. If your stupid enough to use your real name and address. The Nigerians will have a field day “4-1-9” OR “ADVANCE FEE FRAUD” SCHEMES.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:


You’re kidding, right?
If not, let’s take this a step further – why have locks? For that matter, why not simply put all your valuables outside, where, if someone does want to rob you, it will be even easier?
This is like the post about unlimited immigration; I get this feeling that there is some sort of joke involved that I am not a part of.
We did try something like that – we allowed “oppressed” Cubans to come in; so Castro emptied his prisons into Florida. You do know how that turned out; or do you?

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