18 Sep 2010

Danger of new Facebook app ‘places’

As Facebook adds “Places” to its array of features, Rory Gilchrist looks at how users could be putting themselves at risk by sharing their location with friends.

Danger of new Facebook app 'places' (Reuters)

The rapid uptake of smartphones and location aware devices has opened up whole new markets in social networking, with products such as Foursquare making mini games out of this newly available data.

But such powerful features can spell danger for those who do not think through the implications of sharing their location with the world.

But how is Facebook’s implementation of the location feature exposing users to any more risk than if they were to use rival services such as Foursquare?

Facebook by default limits location information so that it can be shared amongst the user’s group of friends.

But many users will simply accept every friend request they get, unless they know and dislike the person, this behaviour in itself can be quite risky.

Often a group of people “friends” is built up that includes many people the user does not actually know. And when location is added to the mix, the information a user thinks is harmlessly being sent out to their friends may begin reaching an undesired audience.

When accepting a friend request on Facebook, location is something that will not automatically cross the user’s minds.

On the other hand when users you sign up to location networks, eg FourSquare, they generally know what they are getting into and think about the privacy of their location a little more than if it were just another feature in the vast arsenal of a mammoth social network.

Foursquare has an array of default privacy features that make it difficult to track an individual without befriending them. But walls of privacy can begin to be torn down once users begin connecting their Foursquare account with their Twitter or Facebook profiles – though FourSquare does allow you to control exactly what is shared with the other networks when sharing is turned on.

Social networking is always going to be a balance between privacy and engagement. Location opens up ever more exciting opportunities for interaction.

But it also provides a darker opportunity: to take electronic stalking into the real world, though if people want to share the location of their home address with all their “friends”, there’s not much social networks can do to stop it.

Rory Gilchrist is a technology writer, blogger, web designer and developer. He works as a technology analyst for a London-based company. You can follow him on Twitter @RoryGilchrist