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