Facebook Places Privacy Controls Get EFF Approval

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said privacy controls in Facebook Places show a "substantial improvement" over those used in earlier products such as Facebook Connections and Instant Personalization.

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.