The Deal With Facebook Places & Privacy in English

Updated: Facebook launched a feature last night called Places that enables users to share their location. Before the launch event had even concluded, the ACLU of Northern California had fired off a missive about how the product fails to protect user privacy. The complaints haven’t stopped since then, with groups like the Center for Digital Democracy saying it will try to get the U.S. Federal Trade Commission involved and widespread Twitter chatter bemoaning the Places default settings.

Facebook should have known this criticism was coming, no matter what it did. Privacy is a very real issue when it comes to people’s personal information, and especially their real-time location. The company tried to make such issues go away with a big simplification of its privacy settings in May and a dedicated presentation about privacy at the Places launch event last night. However, there was no chance that was going to be enough.

From my perspective, the differences between Facebook’s and other people’s check-in products (e.g. Gowalla and Foursquare) are the following:

  • Facebook has more than 500 million users who signed up to use a social network, not a location-sharing service.
  • Facebook allows users to tag their friends at locations. So there’s the possibility that a friend could “check-in” at a location and tag you even if you aren’t actually there.
  • Facebook shows users’ full names and profile data when they’ve recently checked in at a place (this feature is called “Here Now”).

The ACLU’s basic contentions are that:

  • Facebook Places is opt-out instead of opt-in.
  • Users’ check-in data can be seen by people who are not their friends through Here Now.
  • Facebook developers get access to Places data in their applications. In other words, if your friend installs an app but you don’t, your data goes to that developer anyway.

This morning, Facebook contested the ACLU’s complaints with an email to press saying:

  • Places is not actually opt-out. Before any location data about them is published, all users must must opt-in to the product. They cannot be checked in by friends until they are Places users. When a friend tags you at a location you get notified, and it doesn’t show up on your profile until you agree.
  • Users can limit their settings to turn off “Here Now” functionality or their check-ins entirely.
  • Facebook automatically turns Here Now off if you already have restricted other privacy settings, and automatically limits sharing with applications if you opt out of other location-sharing features.

Bringing attention to the issues of privacy around location sharing is a good cause, so props to the ACLU for that. As it is, Facebook users are complaining themselves that turning off Places entirely involves jumping through several hoops. Facebook absolutely could have made Places more opt-in, for instance, by making people find the app themselves and decide to install it on their profiles. But as usual, the company is more concerned with reducing friction that will stop products from spreading and people from sharing. That’s always going to be problematic for many people. In my opinion, friends checking friends in to inaccurate locations will happen rarely unless your friends are jerks or teenagers. Both of those are (hopefully) temporary situations.

Update: We asked Facebook to clarify the issue of how exactly a user opts in to the service. Here’s spokesperson Meredith Chin’s reply:

Before you use Places, when you get tagged by a friend at a place, you receive a notification that asks you if you want to let your friends check you in to places.

If you click “Allow”, then it’s as if you have checked in yourself. This means that you show up on the Place Page in the People Here Now section (unless you have turned that off in your privacy settings) and in the Friends Who Have Visited section.

If you click “Not Now”, then it will be as though you have been tagged in a status update, but you will not be associated with the Place Page. And every time you are tagged you will get the same notification asking if you want to click “Allow” or “Not Now.” (This appears every time you are tagged until you choose one.)

If you have clicked “Allow” then you will still receive a notification when you are tagged, but you will not have to click “Allow” every time. You can, however, go to your privacy settings and disable the ability for friends to check you into places.

If you’re checked in, you appear in the Here Now for a short period of time or until you check in at a new place.

A few things to remember:
You can restrict who sees your check ins using the privacy settings.
Only your friends can check you in.
You can only tag friends when you have also checked in somewhere.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Shortlake Snapshots.

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