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Mastering Places Privacy Can Be Tricky, Facebook Critics Charge

Mastering Places Privacy Can Be Tricky, Facebook Critics Charge

When it rolled out its new Places mobile feature this week, Facebook made a point to focus on the opt-in nature of the new service. While "opt-in" is usually music to the ears of privacy advocates, they're still critical of some of the ways Places shares information. In order to get a handle on the finer points of Places privacy, they charge, users still have to swim through a thick mire of menus screens.

By Kimberly Hill
08/20/10 9:13 AM PT

Facebook rolled out its Places feature this week to much fanfare -- so much, in fact, that the official Facebook Blog has an update note posted that users who are unable to access the service should try back soon to see if they can check in. The app, available on the iPhone as part of Facebook for iPhone and available to all other mobile users through the touch.facebook.com website, allows people to indicate their location in the physical world to all their Facebook friends in the virtual world.

For its part, Facebook has been quick to point out that Places is an opt-in application. One must specifically enable the geolocation tool and then choose to use it. However, privacy experts continue to worry that the privacy controls on Facebook's many tools are difficult to navigate. For example, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has posted specific recommendations about four different settings that users should adjust when choosing to use Places.

Tunneling Through Menus

Places allows users to "check in" to a specific location, via Google Maps, when they arrive. Examples given by the service include a live show or a meeting place for an event. However, one can also check other people in -- a mark similar to tagging a friend in a photograph or status update. Thus, people who are Facebook friends can indicate their physical location with or without their knowledge. One can imagine a host of scenarios in which this might not be optimal under even the best of circumstances. Under the worst of circumstances, such as situations of stalking and domestic violence, the potential problems could become dangerous.

If a user chooses to use the Places app, EPIC recommends customizing its settings:

"(1) disable "Friends can check me in to Places," (2) customize "Places I Check In," (3) disable "People Here Now," and (4) uncheck "Places I've Visited." The organization is pointing out that, once again, users must make their way through a range of settings before accomplishing the goal of protecting their information in the ways they wish.

Where's the Scare?

Despite the worries, Places seems to have rolled out without a great deal of privacy concern among users. This may be due in part to how the service has positioned the opt-in nature of the service. In his blog post on the subject, Places product manager Michael Sharon was quick to point out that, "with Places, you are in control of what you share and the people you share with. You choose whether or not to share your location when you check in at a place. When you check in, you can tag friends who are with you but only if their settings allow it. When you are tagged, you are always notified."

However, he also notes that users who have their master privacy controls set to "Everyone," are, in essence, allowing anyone who visits that user's Profile page exactly where they are. What many users may not understand about this is that even non-Facebook Web surfers have access to that profile. That is, those who, on purpose or inadvertently, have their Facebook settings on "Everyone" are publishing their information for public access on the Web.

No One's Going Anywhere Over Places

Will any of this diminish the use of Facebook? Probably not, according to Jennifer Golbeck, assistant professor of information studies at the University of Maryland. While individual users may be angered by changes in particular privacy settings, or, in this case, by the need for them to change their own settings to prevent others from publishing their whereabouts, they are unlikely to leave the service. Facebook has become a crucial part of most people's communications structure, Golbeck told TechNewsworld. Thus, leaving the service would mean leaving behind the information shared only there by hundreds of friends and colleagues.

It's an issue about which people need to become educated and aware, Claire Simmers, chair of international business at St. Joseph's University, told TechNewsWorld. While privacy experts debate the legalities and regulation concerns over Facebook's constantly changing settings, the rest of us must still do what we can to protect our information and those of people like our children who perhaps don't understand the import of the choices they may make.


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