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Summary:

Facebook has again become a lightning rod for online privacy concerns, this time surrounding its launch of its Facebook Places feature. But the reality is that our notions of privacy are being tested in a variety of ways online, and that isn’t going to stop soon.

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As it has so often in the past, Facebook has again become a lightning rod for online privacy concerns, this time surrounding its launch of Facebook Places, a location-based service that allows users to “check in” to a specific place or event and share that information with their friends. It also allows others to “tag” or check you in at a location, provided you are Facebook friends, and this has drawn fire from the ACLU and other privacy advocates. However, all Facebook has really done is push the envelope a little. The reality is that our notions of privacy are being tested in a variety of ways online, and that isn’t going to stop anytime soon. If anything, it’s likely to escalate.

Even before Facebook Places came along, location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt were already a privacy concern for many. When I tell people about Foursquare, and how it lets you check in and broadcast your location, the response I often get is “why the hell would I want to do that?” Many people simply don’t like the idea of sharing their location with someone, even if they’re only doing it with a circle of close friends. People are comfortable posting their thoughts, their activities, even their emotional state, but there’s something about location that just seems too… real. It crosses that boundary between the virtual world and the real world.

Even the argument that Foursquare and similar apps make it easier to connect with friends, or to find out information about different venues via user-generated “tips” doesn’t seem to help. Some people are paranoid about the negative impact sharing location might have, while others are merely private: Some may have been stalked or even attacked in the past, and don’t want to give potential stalkers any more tools than they absolutely need. The short-lived service PleaseRobMe.com encapsulated a lot of these fears, by showing who was letting the world know that they weren’t home, etc. by sharing their location via Twitter and Foursquare.

Facebook Places has cranked the online-privacy fear meter up to 11, however, because it has added one crucial feature that Foursquare and other services don’t have: namely, the ability to check other people in at a location, in much the same way you would tag someone in a photo on Facebook. Even though (as Liz explains) you can decline to be checked in by your friends, and control who sees your location at a pretty granular level, or even opt out of the entire Places experience altogether, the idea that someone else could give away your exact location seems disturbing to lots of people.

John Lilly, CEO of Mozilla, said in a message posted to Twitter: “This is not going to work. Have to turn off letting other people tag my location. Not the right default, not even close.” Actor and blogger Wil Wheaton posted a message saying: “Facebook rolls out the biggest privacy hole of all – Places – and turns it on by default,” and then linked to a post about how to disable it. Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley, meanwhile, said on Twitter “Yikes. We learned our lesson there with dball in 2006. Not a good idea.”

Despite this, however, it seems almost inevitable that our location is going to become — and in many ways has already become — a lot more public than it used to be, thanks to technologies such as GPS, which is built into everything from mobiles phones to automobiles. If you have a mobile phone, you can already be easily located by police or emergency services, and if you have a smartphone, your photos and other things you upload may already be tagged with your geographic whereabouts, thanks to location-database companies like Skyhook.

Even if you don’t choose to turn on GPS-powered location to use Google Maps or post to Twitter or Facebook — or use services such as Future Check In, which checks you in to locations automatically, without you having to do anything — there are other technologies on the way that are bringing us closer to a Minority Report-style existence, where billboards recognize us and call us by name, and stores remember our last visit and what we bought. Mark Cuban wrote recently about a company that captures video of crowds, and mused about how useful it would be to add facial recognition software to this product, and thereby make Foursquare obsolete. How long before that kind of technology can match you to your Facebook profile photo or your Flickr or Twitter photos?

This undoubtedly seems Big Brotherish to many, but the fact is using tools like Foursquare and Facebook and Twitter can have all kinds of social benefits, making it easier to connect with friends and relatives and maintain what sociologists call “ambient awareness” of them as they go about their lives. To some, this is one of the positive effects of living your life online and using social tools. The line that companies like Facebook have to walk is the line between their desire to make it easier for you to share (photos, location, status updates) and your desire to maintain some kind of control over who sees what and where, and what they can do with it — and different people may draw this line in a different place.

Meanwhile, the fact that Facebook has 500 million users and is still growing means that virtually every feature it launches from now on will likely suffer the same fate as Facebook Places, and become a magnet for all the hopes and fears of anyone who is living their lives online and in public.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): How Facebook Should Fix Its Privacy Problem

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Alan Cleaver

  1. Mathew,

    Great post – I’ve written before about my concerns with Facebook privacy (and Zuckerberg’s repeated mistakes have made me consider moving from doing research in environmental policy to study privacy and internet policy).

    The quotation I wrote at the beginning of my post (you can read it here) really hit home with me – “If privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy. ~ Philip Zimmermann”

    By allowing somebody else (e.g. our ‘Friends’ on Facebook) control our online presence (thanks to Facebook’s Public-by-Default behavior), our privacy is being outlawed. Does that mean that in the future only them (the outlaws, the people who have intruded in our privacy and deprived us from it) will have privacy?

    One has to ponder…

    Great post, Mathew.

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    1. Thanks a lot, Raul.

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  2. Let’s be clear – the default should be “everything off” 5 years ago when we started on our mobile solution we went and talked to potential customers – it was a resounding vote for the ability to control their own privacy and “do no harm when first installed”. So we architected our solution with that in mind. To do otherwise will result in posts like this. What is so hard to understand here is the lack of respect for the customer. Ask for permission and it’s amazing what they’ll grant you – take it without permission and the backlash is always swift.

    Cheers,

    Peter
    5o9 Inc.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter — to be fair to Facebook, you do have to agree before someone can tag you at a location, and it is fairly easy to control who sees what as far as your check-ins go.

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      1. Matthew –

        But the concern here is that FB allows it by default. Sure I can say “No”, but who knows how FB is going to phrase the question / notification? I’ve already turned off Places and most other options. But for those who haven’t, what exactly are they presented with? And is it clear what you are agreeing too?

        -jim

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  3. “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” ~ Helen Keller

    Having worked the last 12 months in the core of multi-national ad agencies and MNC’s in the Balkans I know very well and have real life experience of the necessity of opacity in competitive eco-systems. No culture is more adept at using opacity and occult activity to its advantage than the Balkan. And the benefit to the “parea”, that inner circle that reaps the rewards of doing “quiet business” can be staggeringly lucrative, to say the least.

    When I return to the US to do business, it is initially refreshing. Everyone is talking about transparency, the easy laissez-faire Californian social and business climate allows for a kind of quasi-love or rapport to develop instantly between strangers. And it is refreshing because certain swaths of Americans are just so dang action-oriented. As they say in Europe, if you want something to get done, give it to an American.

    I’ve thought, written and spoken a fair amount on this juxtaposition between opacity and transparency. In the final analysis, I do think the Greeks and Balkans have it right. They know how to keep their mouths shut and do business in a way few Americans would ever comprehend or, quite honestly, notice. In terms of smarts, Balkans are the elder, wiser gentleman. But Americans also have it right with this movement into transparency. The planet, our very eco-system, needs a wave of clarification, of washing, cleaning up the spills that have darkened our waters.

    Which leads me to address the location-based services and, in particular, Facebook’s location-based option. Location-based services CAN lead to good things. For instance, last week while checking in at a hotel, I saw two clients of mine checking in to the same venue as one another in another part of Los Angeles. I texted both and encouraged them to meet. The next evening we all met and a new business venture began. Awesome!

    In terms of negative repercussions with location-based services, I would submit to this forum that transparency IS double-edged. What is done to another in a fully transparent environment could be said to have been witnessed by all. The challenge we have now is that the human community is NOT in a fully transparent eco-system (and may never be). Those who choose to blast their whereabouts and other sensitive details MUST be aware that those who DO NOT may use this information in destructive ways.

    And this, my friends, is the EXACT relationship (in some cases) between quiet businessmen and loud businessmen. We may be action-oriented and effective in the US of A, but our ego-centric thrust towards “being in the lights” is precisely what more clever and subtle cultures use to their advantage and our disadvantage.

    The best tome on this out on the market is Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership. Charlene has captured what it takes for leaders of enterprise-level business to effectively guide their organizations through this season of transparency. She accurately identifies the most effective leader as a Realist-Optimist who is “the most powerful and effective of the open leader archetypes, somebody who can see the benefits of being open but also understands the barriers.”

    As leader and founder of the largest and most clarified of networks, Mr. Zuckerberg has the mandate to be a Realist-Optimist, holding the quality described by Ms. Li.

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  4. All Friends Are not Created Equal…

    Mathew, good post. One of the issues that causes users concern is the broad, vague notion of “Friends” on Facebook. We’ve examined a number of services that connect users to their Facebook friends and many consumers express concern because Friends consist of such a broad, heterogeneous mix. At present, on Facebook, LinkedIn and other popular social networking sites, it’s not easy to make the kinds of distinctions that individuals make in everyday life (e.g., family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues/co-workers, etc.). Google’s Paul Adams (http://twitter.com/padday) illustrates this convincingly in “The Real Life Social Network” at http://bit.ly/b6A03x. Facebook, Google and others who aspire to help us “manage” and stay in touch with our social networks must do a much better job of giving users control. Initial attempts fall far short of what consumers expect.

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst

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  5. Allow Users to Control their Privacy or Someone Else Will

    If Facebook and other social networking sites don’t do a better job of balancing consumers’ needs and concerns, regulators and third-party solutions are likely to fill the void and offer or even impose remedies. In Australia, for example, Victoria is considering broadening the role of the “Privacy Commissioner” and “recommends giving people the right to sue for ‘serious invasion of privacy'” resulting from surveillance on mobile devices. The iapp publishes daily and weekly dashboards that track issues related to privacy and regulatory actions (see https://www.privacyassociation.org/publications/). In the context of online tracking, Fran Maier (CEO of TRUSTe) argues “When done in a privacy conscious manner, online tracking can bring about a richer experience for both consumers and businesses alike. But somebody needs to watch the watchers, so to speak, and ensure that they respect and protect consumer personal information and privacy wishes.” (http://bit.ly/cYtCGy)

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst

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  6. Why we should not let “privacy advocates” spoil the incredible value that results from the free flow of raw thoughts broadcast through social networks: http://florianfeder.org/2010/08/07/privacy/

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  7. [...] GigaOm: Facebook Turns the Privacy Fear Meter Up to 11 [...]

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  8. [...] but not everyone is comfortable with that bargain. The trials and tribulations of Facebook and its attempts to balance privacy and social sharing are evidence of that, as the company continues to face lawsuits and government inquiries. [...]

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  9. [...] with, even if it is only being broadcast to one’s friends — and the fact that your friends can tag you at a location through Facebook Places just adds to that uncomfortable feeling. Facebook may have 500 million [...]

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