Forum

Facebook sneak attacks users’ privacy with Places

Facebook’s newest feature, a location-based service dubbed “Places,” is the latest in a series of updates to the popular social networking site. However, what separates Places from previous additions, including the company’s most recent privacy updates or the News Feed, is the lack of protest from users. So far, criticism of Places has been limited only to a minority of bloggers and forum users — a fact that drastically contrasts the outcry that followed Facebook’s release of Beacon, a feature that published what users were buying and that eventually resulted in a $9.5 million settlement.

While Facebook Places may not warrant a $9.5 million lawsuit, the service certainly includes features that we consider problematic. The concept itself — a service that allows users to check in at any location such as a mall or a local business and simultaneously allows users to see the locations of all their friends — may be a little overbearing, but is certainly nothing to protest. After all, services such as FourSquare have been allowing location check-ins long before Places came out. However, one aspect of the service that may make some uncomfortable is the ability to tag and check in friends, even if they’re not present at a location. Thus, the control is often not in the hands of individual users but of their friends — especially if they have not opted out of the Places service. While this system of controls is similar to photo tagging, people’s current location does not equate to a past photo of them.

This brings up our main concern with Places — the fact that all Facebook users are opted in to the service by default. This means that it is running automatically for every user, and, even if users themselves do not actively use the service, their friends may check them in. Furthermore, when Places first became available, users were not introduced to the product, so most users may not even be aware that the service exists. To learn about the service, Facebook users must follow multiple links until they finally arrive at Facebook’s blog, which then directs them to a series of FAQ pages and a video

And what if users want to disable the feature? Well, it is not as easy as clicking a recognizable “No thanks” link. Instead, users must follow a long series of directions that includes customizing their privacy settings, disabling a feature called “People Here Now,” and editing a section called “Info Accessible Through Your Friends” by ensuring that “Places I check in to” is not chosen.

Sound complicated? We think so too. For full instructions on how to adjust who can expose your location on Places, be sure to visit and carefully follow the directions at www.facebook.com/help/#!/help/?faq=17402.