05/31/2012 10:00 EDT | Updated 07/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Peeked Interest creators defend against privacy concerns

VANCOUVER - On a cold, blustery morning in March, Darryl McIvor was getting grilled on CBC Radio.

When McIvor and Frans Kouwenhoven launched the website Peeked Interest, they knew they were in for some criticism.

Peeked Interest allows students to anonymously post pictures of someone they passed on the street, or saw anywhere else in public, and would like to meet.

McIvor was happy to get some press for his site but knew he'd be taking some heat during his radio interview.

"It's one thing to put the picture up, it's another thing to take it down ... the damage may already be done. Don't you think this is a breach of privacy?" said Rick Cluff, the host of CBC Vancouver's "Early Edition."

McIvor, a recent graduate from the University of Victoria business school, stood his ground.

"You have to look at the demographic that this service is used for," said McIvor. "It's university students. I think, perhaps, an older generation might feel it is an invasion of ..."

"How does that change it, because of the age card you're playing here?" Cluff responded. "How does that change it? I'm just curious."

McIvor thought for a moment. "I think in the digital age, what's deemed acceptable has changed throughout generations ... even within the past two to five years."

Anyone who recognizes themselves on the site can respond to the person who posted the photo and perhaps set up a meeting — or they can ask to have the photo taken down.

So far, Peeked Interest has been restricted to students registered with either UVic or the University of British Columbia. And whether the students were creeped out or not, the site caught their attention.

During the program's "test drive" in the spring, it was receiving nearly 5,000 visitors a day looking at the 450 photos that had been uploaded.

By the end of the term, 45 students had identified themselves in a photo and made contact with the uploader. Only four students asked to have a photo taken down, McIvor said.

The website is on hiatus over the summer while tweaks are being made for a September relaunch.

"We knew going in that it would be controversial when it came out, but we have a pretty thick skin," said McIvor. He says the reaction has been equally positive and negative.

"It's been really interesting to see all the connections that have been made, and the fact that there's an even split of males and females using it."

Peeked Interest is just the latest in what appears to be a rapidly-growing market for applications that enable students to meet each other without making an approach in person.

In the past year, programs coming to UBC have included LikeALittle, which allows students to post anonymous flirty messages to others on campus, and Electric Courage, which has a digital "Flirt Wall" for each campus bar.

Kashmir Hill, who writes for Forbes magazine on privacy and technology issues, pushes back against what she sees as an overreaction in calling every new app "creepy."

"This desire to have control of our image and how it's used is a very old concern," said Hill.

When camera technology was first developed, for example, there was much legal consternation over the ability of anyone to take a photo in public, and then have that photo published in newspapers without the permission of those in it.

"I think as a society, we just need to get thicker skins," she said, "and understand that we can't always control information."

McIvor argues his program is actually very respectful of privacy. Peeked Interest actually isn't that much different from the "Missed Connections" section that has been in the classified section of newspapers for years, said McIvor. The only reason people get upset with Peeked Interest is that it uses imagery, even though the photos were taken in public spaces.

Years from now, as technology advances, particularly in the realm of facial recognition software, McIvor thinks people will feel silly for making a fuss over these applications.

"I think we're going to look back on Peeked Interest and say, 'That was actually pretty tame.'"