Here’s the status update of one of my friends on Facebook today (August 29): “IMPORTANT!!! Facebook launched Facebook Places yesterday. Anyone can find out where you are when you are logged in. It gives the actual address & map location of where you are as you use Facebook. Make sure your kids know. Go to ‘Account’, ‘Account Settings’, ‘Notifications’, then scroll down to ‘Places’ and uncheck the… 2 boxes. Make sure to SAVE changes and re-post this!”
I had heard something about this particular feature but, to be honest, until I saw this status update, I really hadn’t paid much attention to it. But this status update felt so dire that I decided I really needed to check out what this feature is all about. It turns out that this feature was released on August 18, nearly two weeks ago.
I checked the help section of Facebook and found that Places is a “feature that allows you to see where your friends are and share your location in the real world. When you use Places, you’ll be able to see if any of your friends are currently checked in nearby and connect with them easily. You can check into nearby Places to tell your friends where you are, tag your friends in the Places you visit, and view comments your friends have made about the Places you visit.” So it seems that Facebook is trying to move its network into the real world in a new way. In fact, they tell us that we can “Use Places to experience connecting with people on Facebook in a completely new way.” They seem to see Places as a way to connect the real with the online in a way that hasn’t really been possible in the past.
Like many changes to the way Facebook works, this particular feature has raised privacy concerns. People have worried that this feature can be used to track a Facebook user’s movements. I think this is a valid concern but it’s one that is easily ameliorated. The Places feature is currently only available to those users in the United States who access Facebook via their iPhone or via touch.Facebook.com, which is Facebook’s website for touchscreen mobile devices. Although I haven’t been able to confirm this, I think your mobile device would need to have GPS capabilities so those of us who use the iPod Touch don’t need to worry about this feature (at least, not yet).
Some of the privacy concerns seem to be a bit misplaced, however. Although I haven’t checked it out, Facebook assures us that no user’s location would be shared unless that user “checks in” with their location. In other words, the feature requires active participation on the part of the user. Which is a good thing, it seems to me. No location sharing happens without the user explicitly allowing it. So maybe the feature isn’t as dangerous as my friend’s status update would lead us to believe.
In my opinion, privacy is about choice. Privacy is not necessarily about secrecy. Instead, it’s about giving the owner of information the choice as to whether and with whom she will share that information. Although Facebook has made some problematic privacy decisions in the past, from what I can see so far, the Places feature does not jeopardize the privacy of Facebook users. I don’t quite understand yet the feature where your friends can tag you at a location so perhaps that’s an area of concern. I’ll be curious about whether anyone else knows more about that.
Regarding the instructions given in my friend’s status update that I reference in the first paragraph of this post–those instructions are about notifications. They specify whether you will be notified if someone tags you at a place. If you uncheck the box (as the instructions tell you to do), you will not be notified of such a tagging. Unchecking the box does not prevent someone from tagging you. So I think you probably don’t want to follow those instructions–especially if you are concerned about the information that is out there about you.