Thursday, August 19, 2010

Facebook Places: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Facebook Places launched yesterday after months of speculation and, in some cases, feelings of hope and panic. Geotagging has become increasingly popular in social media circles. Some users absolutely love it while some, like me, don't see a use for it. But when you look at Facebook's history with privacy and security, there's bound to be some real cause for worry. Here's the good, the bad and the ugly of this new Facebook feature.

The Good:

Facebook Places is an opt in feature. Therefore, it's disabled by default. In order to start using the application you have to sign in to it and allow it to start sharing your location with your friends. The feature is also set so that, by default, your location is only shared with your friends. You can change this in your "Privacy Settings" and under "Places I check in" you can change who can see where you check in. As with most Facebook features, your options include, "Everyone", "Friends", "Friends of Friends" and "Custom", where you can pick any of your groups or "Only Me" and also block specific friends as well. You can also disable friends from being able to check you in places. Unfortunately, this is only an enable/disable feature. (More on this a little later.)

The Bad:

As I mentioned above, you can only allow/disallow your friends to check you into places. That means, if you "enable" the feature, anyone of your friends can check you into a location. This has some groups concerned about your privacy.
But while Facebook makes it easy for users to allow their friends to check them in, the ACLU says that opting out of that feature is more difficult. For example, the feature lets users select a “not now” option when friends attempt to check them in, but not a “never” option to prevent friends from attempting to do so in the future. Further, if you’re already a Places user, friends can just check you in automatically.
Another bad feature, according to the tech blogs, of Facebook Places is when you check into a location, everyone else who has checked into that location also sees you in the "Here Now" feature, regardless of your privacy settings. But I found when I looked at my Facebook privacy settings that there's an "Include me in 'People Here Now' after I check in" box that is checked by default. If you uncheck the box, you will not be included in the "People Here Now" feature. But there is still no way to customize it so that only your friends can see it. Maybe Facebook will change that feature in the future, but for now, there's only yes or no.

The Ugly:

One major concern many have with applications such as Facebook Places and FourSquare is that it's very easy to turn your home into a "location" where your friends can check-in. This is a big concern if you happen to be a single woman and have a bunch of tech-savvy friends (namely, me.) According to Facebook, there's no real recourse except filing a complaint and waiting for Facebook to take down the location.
Facebook Product Manager Michael Sharin who says the company has a strong system in place to rapidly accept complaints from users. While there is no set time frame for handling a red flag, he says problems will be dealt with swiftly and often within 24 hours.
Another ugly feature is third party applications run through Facebook.
Facebook’s policy when it comes to sharing location information with third-party applications. As a user, the applications you install will need your explicit permission to get your check-in information. That’s valid, however, if your friend has weak privacy settings, s/he is free to share your check-in information to applications and Connect partners. This can be easily remedied by unchecking a box in your privacy settings but it is permitted by default. According to Schnitt, this exchange exposes information on your “check-ins, details about a place, ability to search for places and check-ins from friends.”
Facebook has a FAQ page for Places where it addresses many of the questions users may have. Users can also submit feedback and report problems with the feature. I have a feeling a few of the issues I discussed may be addressed by Facebook in the future. The bottom line is, well, Facebook's bottom line. Facebook is venturing into a world of location-based services to increase revenue. It's a good marriage for Facebook, local businesses and users who love both Facebook and staking their claim on local businesses. For others, it's another hurdle to climb to maintain online privacy.

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