Well Facebook Places is here and you can now check-in to places (only for US customers at present) with the Facebook App, so friends and others can see where you are. Useful? – probably. A privacy concern? – most definitely.
The use of geo-location apps has been growing with the likes of Foursquare and Gowalla taking the lead. Having used Foursquare at SXSW in Texas earlier this year I recognise that there a use for a general public check-in in order to identify the ‘happening’ places. However, for me this very public announcement of where I was had marginal value. In addition, I feel that there are significant obvious drawbacks that I believe outweigh the advantages.
I do understand that using Facebook in order to check-in to places so my friends (and for me, only my friends) can see where I am, might be useful to help link up. An immediate problem though is that my Facebook friends include very close friends, close-ish friends and others from sports clubs and the like that I know, am friendly with, but are not that close with. As we know, the issue with Facebook is that I can’t restrict who knows where I am.
So onto privacy: why am I concerned? The Facebook blog makes it clear that my Facebook friends can check me in somewhere without me doing it. OK so what’s the problem – I can set a privacy control to stop this being broadcast after all. Yes, but why is the default set so that others can do it. Surely the responsible, ethical default setting should be that only I can control my check-ins? Anything else is a breach of my privacy and right to controlling that privacy.
Three further things worry me. Firstly, Facebook seem to have invented quite a few new privacy settings to control various features of the new Places function. These are not all in one place, not set to protective defaults and are not eminently clear as to what they do. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if Facebook can make their overall user experience so good and so easy, then they should be able to do the same for their privacy settings. The very fact that they don’t can only be a deliberate policy to fool people into being more open than they would otherwise opt-in to be.
Secondly, this quote from the Facebook blog is priceless: “If you don’t want to share your check-ins with your friends’ applications, just uncheck the new box in your Privacy Settings under ‘Applications and Websites’”. So if I do nothing and my friend uses a dodgy application that abuses their check-in data, mine can be abused too – without me having any idea whatsoever what application my friend is using or what that app is doing with the data!! This is horrendous. Facebook should definitely set the default for that option to disable, but they haven’t – and they’ve neatly buried the privacy option so most users won’t see it. This is unethical and wrong.
Finally, nowhere in the Facebook announcement clearly states what Facebook is going to do with all this rich new check-in information they are getting (we’re providing them). Are they going to use it only internally or are they going to share with and sell to partners? Is the data going to be anonymised or will I be identifiable? Facebook have a duty of care over the data we share with them and the first duty is to tell us what they do with the data so we can make informed choices as to how we use Facebook.
Overall Facebook Places will be a well received addition to the Facebook toolset. However privacy concerns over the new feature are not just noise nor are they carping comments from those not sharing in the Facebook success story. These are legitimate concerns and have very real adverse effects for the majority of Facebook users who are just not aware of what they are letting themselves in for.