Exclusive: Top Privacy Group to Discuss Facebook Places With FTC


Now that Facebook is jumping on the geo-location bandwagon with Facebook Places -- not surprising, given the rapid rise of other such services as Foursquare and Gowalla -- privacy advocates are already raising concerns. (CNET's Caroline McCarthy broke the news about Places last week.)

In fact, one group, the Center for Digital Democracy, says it will discuss the new service, which Facebook touts as letting "you announce your location to buddies and keep track of your friends' whereabouts," with the Federal Trade Commission very soon.

"The CDD will be raising Facebook's new location feature with top FTC officials this week," Jeffrey Chester, the CDD's executive director tells DailyFinance. "In typical Facebook-speak, they are not telling users how their location data will be used by marketers and advertisers."

Privacy advocates are concerned that Facebook could use the geo-location data to gather more information about its members' everyday habits -- the better to market products and services to them.

Tell Your Friends Where You Are

Facebook launched the new feature, which will be based on GPS technology, Wednesday evening. "When you check in, you can also tag friends who are with you, just as you can tag a friend in a status update or photo. You can post an update along with your check-in to tell people more about what you are doing," the company said in blog post.

The CDD isn't the only privacy group concerned about Facebook Places. The ACLU of Northern California released a statement praising Facebook for making "some changes to its regular privacy practices to protect sensitive location-based information, such as limiting the default visibility of check-ins on your feed to 'Friends Only.'"

The ACLUNC also added: "But it has failed to build in some other important privacy safeguards. Facebook immediately opened up location data to applications and Connect sites. This means that your friends' apps may be able to access information about your most recent check-in by default as soon as you start using Places."

Facebook seems to have taken some steps to make it easier for users to switch off the service if they don't want to use it, but for many, the privacy controls could be complex and confusing. The ACLUNC highlighted two other problems with the new service:

Problem 1: You don't have full control over who can see you in the "Here Now" list. You can only choose to turn the feature on or off. If it's on, any Places user who checks in at the same place can see you in the Here Now list.

Problem 2: "Here Now" is turned on by default if you have previously selected that "Everyone" can see even a single piece of your information.

Service, or Surveillance?

The CDD's Chester says Facebook places -- and the rise of geo-location services in general, is just another incremental step in the growing surveillance of Internet users.

"The new service suggests that it's all about fun -- 'You may want to share your check-in information with third-party applications that build interesting experiences around location, such as travel planning,'" says Chester. "That really means Facebook has already developed plans to mine the digital gold of your data -- with its network of third-party marketers."

Update 3:30 p.m.: The Electronic Privacy Information Center has just issued a statement on Facebook Places:

Facebook "Places" Embeds Privacy Risks, Complicated and Ephemeral Opt-Out Unfair to Users

The recently announced Facebook service Places makes user location data routinely available to others, including Facebook business partners, regardless of whether users wish to disclose their location. There is no single opt-out to avoid location tracking; users must change several different privacy settings to restore their privacy status quo. For users who do not want location information revealed to others, EPIC recommends that Facebook users: (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." EPIC, joined by many consumer and privacy organizations, has two complaints pending at the Federal Trade Commission concerning Facebook's unfair and deceptive trade practices, which are frequently associated with new product announcements. For more information, see EPIC In Re Facebook, EPIC In Re Facebook II, and EPIC Facebook Privacy.

Note: Over three months ago, I deactivated my Facebook account because of concerns about Facebook's privacy controls and the transparency with which it was communicating its practices to users. Given Facebook's new location service, I've reactivated my account, to see how much progress the company has made in addressing its privacy issues and to assess Places. Facebook's statements about Places indicate the company has learned some privacy lessons -- but as the CDD and the ACLU note, privacy is still a major concern. I'll update readers with my findings in the coming days.