Facebook Places Privacy Controls Get EFF Approval

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-08-20

Facebook Places Privacy Controls Get EFF Approval

Despite complaints from some consumer advocates about the privacy measures in Facebook Places, the Electronic Frontier Foundation called privacy controls for the location-based service a "substantial improvement" over those of earlier products.

That praise from the EFF comes with the caveat that Facebook Places settings are only good if users understand them and judiciously use them.

Facebook launched its Places location-based service Aug. 18. The service lets users "check in" to a location via their smartphone to share their locations with Facebook friends.

Places will tell those users if their friends are nearby in case the parties want to meet up. Users may also tag friends who are with them. Facebook Places rivals check-in services from Foursquare and Gowalla. TechCrunch runs down the controls here.

The EFF is highly sensitive to location-based Web services, having tussled with Google over its Latitude friend-finding service to make sure that it protects user privacy.

So the EFF naturally took an interest when the world's leading social network, which boasts 500 million users, announced its location-based service.  

Noting that a stream of location information can provide a detailed picture of users' lives, EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl credited Facebook Places for letting only Facebook friends see when users are tagged in a location.

That is, the default privacy setting for the service is "only friends" instead of "everyone," which the EFF recommends against. Facebook scored a major point with the EFF there.

Moreover, when a friend tries to check in another friend who has not opted into Places, he will receive an alert that lets the friend "allow check-ins," or select "not now" to discard that specific check-in.

Users may permanently disallow check-ins by disabling "Friends can check me in to Places" on the customize privacy settings page. Another point scored, in Opsahl's book.

Users may also opt out of the Here Now broadcast feature by unchecking the "Include me in 'People Here Now' after I check in" privacy control.

However, Opsahl laments that Facebook does not let users limit Here Now visibility to groups of friends. This is a granular control that could be added later.

Facebook Places Largely Meets EFFs Approval


Opsahl also expressed concerns that Facebook Places could be used by police, FBI and other law enforcement agencies to track users to investigate criminal activity.

This is an issue the EFF broached with Google and Loopt, asking that those services require a wiretap order before tracking a Places user's location for law enforcement.

Facebook scored yet another point with the EFF by asserting that it will require a "search warrant for prior generated content or a wiretap to capture forward generated content."

Opsahl concluded:

"Places is Facebook's most significant product launch since the controversial introduction of Connections and Instant Personalization. We had a number of constructive conversations with Facebook leading up to this launch, and appreciated the opportunity to provide feedback.

"Not everything resulted in changes, but overall it was a positive process. While the product is not perfect and could use some important changes, as noted above, the privacy settings and defaults represent a substantial improvement over those earlier launches."

The EFF also vowed to closely watch the service's implementation and effects on locational privacy.

The group knows most people who aren't tech-savvy won't necessarily grok the significance of the privacy and security risks associated with letting GPS technology in smartphones and applications track people.

This is what services such as Facebook Places, Google Latitude, Loopt, Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and others do.

Not every faction shares the EFF's view that Facebook Places provides a marked privacy improvement over previous Facebook services.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California lashed out at Facebook for its lack of granular privacy controls.

Facebook doesn't go quietly when it believes it's right. Facebook spokesperson Barry Schnitt refuted the ACLU's claims, arguing that it misunderstood the way the privacy controls work in Places.

"No location information is associated with a person unless he or she explicitly chooses to become part of location sharing. No one can be checked in to a location without their explicit permission."

He added: "Many third parties have applauded our controls, indicating that people have more protections using Facebook Places than other widely used location services available today."

Facebook then finds itself in rare agreement with the EFF.

Rocket Fuel