Using a Fitness App Taught Me the Scary Truth about Privacy Settings

Rosie Spinks | SBS | August 2, 2017

As a lifelong runner, I’ve become adept at predicting the best times, routes, and strategies to jog in cities while avoiding street harassers. But recently, when using the social fitness tracking app Strava, I noticed a different kind of potential threat—one I wasn’t prepared for.

After I’d completed my usual 5-kilometre near my London flat, a stranger I didn’t know “liked” my workout—even though I had enabled stricter privacy settings, which I thought would shield my workouts from public view. This happened several more times while I jogged the same route, and then again when I was on vacation in Barcelona. Alarmed at the idea of that strangers could see the routes I run on two or three times a week, I embarked on an investigation into the privacy settings of Strava.

It should be said that for many Strava users, the whole point of the app is to receive “kudos”—Strava’s equivalent of an Instagram like—from strangers. Indeed, for the (mostly male) users who dominate Strava’s feature discussion forum, the public and granular nature of Strava’s user data is what allows them to compare, compete, and quantify their performance with rigorous attention to detail.

Tracking everything from speed and elevation to calories burned and personal records, Strava’s users can see how they are progressing against their past performance, and compared to users who run or cycle the same routes. This social aspect is appealing to me, too, but with a crucial caveat: I only want people who I’ve allowed to follow me to see where I run. When you’re a woman whose personal and digital space is invaded with alarming regularity, you think carefully about how your digital life intersects with your real one—especially when the data you’re sharing is quite literally close to your front door...