The release of Facebook Places this week is sparking new privacy concerns about the popular mega-social network. Places is a location-based service that allows you to “check in” to a specific place like a local watering hole or event (maybe a concert?) and share your location with friends. This technology has been available for some time with other location-based services – Foursquare comes to mind – but never before on such a large scale – Facebook now boasts more than 500 Million users.
Simply providing location services isn’t really what has everyone up in arms though. Places also allows others (people you’ve “friended”) to “tag” or check you in at a location. Now that could be a bit scary. I sometimes post on Twitter or Facebook if I’m attending a particular event (or if I’m stuck in an elevator at the Chamber of Commerce moments before giving a seminar). Don’t laugh. It happens. But what if I’m being stalked by Angelina Jolie or Sela Ward? I may not want them to know where I’m at. Okay, go ahead and laugh. But it could happen.
Of particular concern with most people however, is the fact that this service is turned on by default. Facebook does have some privacy settings in place, and this makes it unlikely that you’ll accidentally disclose your whereabouts, but the default settings do not prevent others from “tagging” you without your knowledge. In fact, even if you don’t use Places and and leave your phone at home, your Facebook friends could still make this public knowledge unless you actually login to Facebook and change this setting.
Turning this on by default is a colossal gaff in my humble opinion. This really needed to be a user decision. But Facebook is used to privacy issues. I’m interested to see what the new movie “The Social Network” reveals concerning their policy making. Being the 800 lb. gorilla in social networking, I suppose they can afford to thumb their noses at us.
Although modern mobile devices automatically track your location via the GPS chip or tower locations, that information is not generally available except to emergency services. For a mobile application to report where you are, you generally have to install and enable that functionality, and are typically asked to confirm that you want to let the device disclose your location, a sensible precaution.
Facebook privacy settings do let you control who can see if you’ve checked into a location. Again, by default your Facebook friends can see, but you can broaden that to “friends of friends or “everyone.” (But why would you?) A more useful feature is that you can also limit it to individuals or groups. You could create a group names Golf Buddies, and reveal your location only to them.
The good news? According to the Facebook Blog, you can now access your Facebook privacy settings from any web device, including most cell phones. You might want to log in and do that right now while you’re thinking about it, and it’s especially important for parents to talk with their kids about the safe use of location services.