Be real or be stalked? Privacy pitfalls of Gen-Z’s favorite app
This app “won’t make you famous,” its creators say, but BeReal is “a chance to show your friends who you really are, for once.”
The premise of one of GenZ’s favorite new social apps is simple. BeReal sends a notification to your phone once a day, at a different time each day. “⚠️Time to BeReal ⚠️,” says the prompt, caution triangles included. You then have two minutes to share a picture of whatever you’re doing at that very moment, using both the front and back cameras on your smartphone. If your room is messy, too bad. It is only after you snap and post your picture that you can see what other users — whether they’re friends or random strangers — are doing that day.
When you select the “Discovery” tab, you can see exactly where complete strangers are at any given time. As I wrote this story, I could see a student studying for an exam in a village in southern Spain, a girl eating lunch in the Mariana islands in the South Pacific and the inside of a high school classroom in a French town on the Belgian border.
BeReal also lets you send a friend request to anyone who’s in your phone contacts — including people you may not want to see online or in real life. When my younger sister first showed me the app, it immediately reminded me of a jealous ex-partner who would demand to know where I was and who I was with at any given moment. How easy BeReal would make life for him, I thought. Gradually, if he was paying attention, he’d be able to build up a pattern. The city park where I take my solitary morning run, my favorite daily coffee spot, my bus route and my after-work wine bar — all could now be revealed on BeReal.
A viral tweet in October by the pop culture writer Engwari sparked a discussion of the same issue. “Am I crazy or does the BeReal app not seem like a stalker’s wet dream to anyone else?” she wrote. “When I first found out how it works, it reminded me of those abusive partners who angrily/jealously text you ‘take a picture of where you are and who you’re with RIGHT THIS SECOND,’” one person replied.
Like many chat apps, BeReal strongly encourages users to sync their phone contacts with the app upon download. And while the default is private, BeReal encourages you to switch on the location settings when you post. What it doesn’t tell you is that this means your precise location, down to the square meter and even your longitude and latitude coordinates. Other apps like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook harvest and collect precise location data, but they don’t do it to this degree. On BeReal, unless you turn off the location settings, anyone following you can see exactly where you are and potentially find you. I spoke to a handful of people who had run-ins with stalkers due to these features.
Jem, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from North Carolina, kept her BeReal account private, but a stalker still found her profile through the contacts import feature. “I don’t have his number saved, in fact, it’s blocked. So it was shocking to see it would still recommend me as a friend,” Jem said. When she didn’t accept his request, he made a BeReal profile posing as one of her friends. “Because BeReal doesn’t show you friends’ lists or posts, I just assumed it was actually her and added her back. He then had access to my BeReal,” she said, describing how strange she felt once she realized he had been seeing her daily activity — and her precise location, which she had switched on. “Luckily he doesn’t live near me,” Jem said.
Until very recently, it was impossible to block someone on BeReal — which presented a serious problem for people facing harassment. You could report an abusive user, but this provided no guarantees. The other option was to unfriend them, but this wouldn’t make you invisible, in the way that blocking might.
When Shomil Jain, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, noticed the app snowballing in popularity on his campus, he “did a little reverse engineering” and found something that scared him. On the app’s “Add Friends” page, BeReal gives suggestions for friends of your friends to add, similar to Facebook’s much-maligned “People You May Know” algorithm. Jain, who studies software engineering, was easily able to scrape the site and see an entire network of someone’s friends — and their friends’ friends.
Without too much trouble, Jain found that it was technically possible to see the friends of pretty much every single user on the platform, including those who believed they were protecting themselves by keeping their posts private.
“The sheer amount of data that was exposed was pretty stunning,” Jain told me. “Facebook probably spent years building security around their friend graph, and these folks just casually made the whole thing available for the world to see.”
A BeReal spokesperson named Bryan told me he recommends people only add their close friends and family on the app. Bryan also said the company would soon be launching new settings that allow users to choose whether they prefer sharing an approximate or precise location with their followers.
“Unfortunately, all things of a social nature may attract ill-intended people,” he said. Indeed. In 2022, the app attracted all kinds of people — it topped 53 million downloads by the end of the year. The company, based in France, also raised $60 million in investment funding.
Founded by French tech entrepreneurs Alexis Barreyat and Kevin Perreau, BeReal first gained traction in French universities during lockdown in 2020. It then began snowballing on college campuses in Europe and the U.S. before breaking out into the world at large.
Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz staked $30 million on BeReal in 2022. Anne Lee Stakes, a partner at the firm, wrote a LinkedIn post last week hailing the campus strategy as an “experimental” and “iconic” technique combining “brute force,” word-of-mouth marketing with the student ambassador program. The company paid student ambassadors on campuses across the world “to spread the BeReal mission and support our growth.” At Harvard, students were invited to party at a burger joint and allowed entry and free food, provided they downloaded the app and added five friends.
BeReal doesn’t serve any ads or have a subscription model, so it’s yet to be seen how it will make returns for its investors. Sources close to the company told the Financial Times in September that investors were pushing BeReal to monetize and introduce new features to avoid becoming a flash-in-the-pan app like Clubhouse or House Party. A telltale sign that it’s caught on — and may become a real money-maker — is that other platforms are trying to emulate the premise. Instagram and TikTok have launched copycat plugins of the BeReal format, called “TikTok Now” and “Candid Stories.”
This all hinges on people’s willingness to really use the app every day. Unless you post something yourself, you can’t see what other people have posted that day either. This, the app’s makers say, is to discourage “lurking” — but it also pressures users to post each and every day, making it easier for anyone watching to build a more complete pattern of someone’s life. This could be your stalker. Or it could be a tech company looking to monetize people’s data.
This is a problem, said Jules Polonetsky, a lawyer and privacy expert and the CEO of advocacy group and think tank Future of Privacy Forum. “BeReal’s main legal risk is requiring its huge teenage audience to post a photo, or be blocked from their friends’ photos. This runs smack into privacy standards in Europe and California that require privacy by default for kids and teen services.”
Bryan at BeReal told me: “BeReal’s business model is not based on the monetization of its users’ personal data for the purposes of commercial profiling or targeted advertising.” But that leaves plenty of room for other kinds of data-driven profits.
“Clearly, you have to monetize something,” said Jon Callas, the director of public interest technology at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. While it may seem nice that these services are free of charge, “instead of paying for things in cash, we’re paying for them in information.”
The coercive element of BeReal also caught Callas’ attention.
“I thought it was a joke the first time I heard of it,” he said. What was the funny part, I asked him. “It’s using social coercion to say, ‘you have two minutes to drop what you’re doing and interact with social media.’”
Even the name “BeReal,” Callas said, added to that sense of artificial peer pressure — “because if we’re not doing this thing, we’re not Being Real. And who doesn’t want to be real?”
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