Home Facebook Places & Privacy: Both Real & Overblown Concerns

Facebook Places & Privacy: Both Real & Overblown Concerns

Facebook launched its mobile location feature last week, called Places, and just as the company deserves – there was intense scrutiny of the new feature’s privacy settings. It turns out that you can check-in friends as being at the same location you are in. That’s a new and perhaps counter-intuitive bit of social engineering. People have been calling it a bug, a privacy violation, a crime against human decency. I don’t think any of this criticism is going to hold up for long. Places has some privacy problems, but checking in other people isn’t one of them.

Here’s what this new ability to tag other people is: it’s a means to publish structured assertions about another person in a way that becomes visible to their friends because of the nature of the technology. It’s like a public reply on Twitter or a trackback between blogs, but within the safe confines of Facebook friend relationships. It’s easy to delete instances you’ve been tagged in a place just like you can in a photo. It’s no big deal and the whole feature is going to be a big hit in the long run.

“Come here often? Facebook Places says you do…”

Friends might check you in to embarrassing places a few times, but after awhile they’ll get bored with it or you’ll stop being their friends. And it’s super easy to un-tag yourself.

Of course there were countless ways to say that someone was hanging out somewhere on Facebook before now, including tagging their username in a free-text message. This just makes it easier.

The concern about exposure of peoples’ locations this way is reminiscent of the widespread panic caused by the introduction of the Facebook News Feed several years ago.

The concern about exposure of peoples’ locations this way is reminiscent of the widespread panic caused by the introduction of the Facebook News Feed several years ago. Information about our changed Facebook profiles may have been publicly visible all the time, but the fact that changes were being brought into one central place for all our friends to see felt to some people like a privacy violation! Now it’s the central charecteristic of the Facebook experience.

Facebook has certainly implemented some changes over the last 9 months that represent radical violations of users’ privacy – changing the default status of any shared content to wide open to the public being the big one. But this feature within Places? No big deal.

The real problems faced by Places include the boring Place listings and the unclear protocol for challenging a place’s title. If my family’s house gets submitted to Facebook Places as “Dusty’s Rehab Center for Retired Alcoholic Circus Clowns” – there’s no clear way to have that removed. More likely it could be tagged “Marshall Kirkpatrick’s house” and that’s not something I’d be happy about either.

That’s something we asked Facebook about last week. The company’s response? ReadWriteWeb’s Adrianne Jeffries explained:

Users can “report” a place page that they believe violates Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, but Facebook does not say how quickly place pages will be reviewed or what the criteria for removal might be. In addition, official representatives of a business will be able to claim their place pages using the same verification system in place for fan pages. (A fan page administrator will also be able to merge his or her place page with the official fan page on Facebook.)

We hope that Facebook has a plan and doesn’t intend to do this kind of place maintenance by the seat of its pants. Otherwise, the Places feature could get messy …

That’s a serious issue. The ability to tag friends as being at a location without their checking in themselves? Call it asynchronous check-ins, perhaps. No big deal.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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