Privacy and Safety Concerns Among Couchsurfing Website Users

CS USERS’ PHONE NUMBERS & OTHER PRIVATE INFORMATION EASY TO FIND ON GOOGLE

Prior to the Place Pages being instituted, groups moderated by CS website users were able to set the group to “Private” in such a way that postings made on the group’s message boards would not be visible to anyone not logged into the Couchsurfing website.

When the Place Pages were instituted and the previous city message boards were removed, the Place Page city message boards did not have moderators and could no longer be marked as “private” by CS users looking to protect user’s private information and communications. In addition, there was and still is no way for users to have all of their posts be set to “private” by default. Furthermore, the default setting was “public”, meaning that people who have not logged into the CS website could view their posts. Instead, a user must select a setting on each of their individual posts in order for that post to be made not visible to people who have not logged into the CS website.

In addition, not only is the default setting now “public”, search engines like Google appear to be able to easily find the contents of user’s posts. This concerns a great number of users, because users sometimes post confidential information like phone numbers, home addresses, travel plans, and what local CS events they plan to attend.

Don Shine/Dion Shields, a former CS Ambassador, after reportedly exchanging emails with Couchsurfing CEO Tony Espinoza regarding this problem, posted on his public  “Censorship on Couchsurfing” Facebook event page, the link http://imgur.com/a/AxatW/ to clearly demonstrate that CS users were posting their phone numbers and that this information was easy to find. (He blacked out CS user’s names and phone numbers before posting the link.) In response, another CS user posted a walkthrough of how to easy it is to find CS users’ phone numbers using Google (http://bit.ly/Z5v4dr), thereby demonstrating that this problem still exists.

It should be noted that while in the US, home addresses and home phone numbers of the majority of US residents are already easily accessible online and in print phone books, this is not the case with cell phone numbers. It is relatively common for some age groups to not have a home phone number and to only have a cell phone number. In general, cell phone numbers are regarded as confidential personal information.

It is also reported that Couchsurfing’s CEO, through his communications with Don Shine, is aware of the problem and says that CS will address it. It is currently unclear what changes, if any, will be made to the CS website to address this problem.

UPDATE ADDED 3/18/13

On March 14, CEO Tony Espinoza posted the following in the public Ambassadors Group (https://www.couchsurfing.org/group_read.html?gid=2125&post=14262863#post14270267)

Please note: In the post below, the CEO does not address what will happen with posts already on the Place Page that contain private information like phone numbers, only what will happen with new posts.

——————————————————————————————————–

CS SITE UPDATE:

The following changes will improve Place page usability, privacy and safety.

Recent changes you may have noticed:

1) Users must click through updated safety guidelines in order to post.

2) Conversations now feature a “send message” button next to each member’s name in order to encourage use of private messages instead of sharing contact info.

3) Typing a phone number or email address triggers an alert in red text recommending against sharing such info.

4) Login is required to view Place pages unless a direct link to the page is shared.

5) Google SEO is not permitted to index comments on Places including those set to Public.

BY 22 MAR 2013:

1) Many geography issues will be addressed. A new tool will enable us to fix problems faster — please feel free to contact me directly with geography issues: ….@….

2) New conversation threads and replies will default to “Visible to logged-in members only”.

3) Synchronization between the old site and Place pages will be in production.

BY 8 APRIL 2013:

1) New CS Events

2) We will require new users to fill out a minimum number of profile fields in order to post on Places. (This fix requires Synchronization to reach production.)

3) Detecting a member’s current physical location will begin working much better based on a new HTML 5 implementation.

4) When a member posts to Places they must select between the following subcategories:

– Looking for a host
– Interested in hanging out
– Seeking local advice
– Discussion

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1 Comment

  1. Hayko Kunze

     /  March 16, 2013

    I remember that last year all major city groups such as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Bangkok and various other major hubs were set to “private” by their moderators to NOT be indexed by google. After this, CS had invented the “places pages” in order to reverse this setting.

    Reply

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