The Real Risks Behind Facebook “Places”

Facebook made some peculiar decisions in the privacy rules for Facebook Places. The problem is hardly just a technical limitation, it’s endemic of the way social media has altered society and technology must help the user be aware and workaround it.

It’s worth noting that Facebook restricts check-ins to friends only. This is different from almost anything they have done in the past where they opted for more public views. Clearly they knew location was pushing the envelope and choose a more restricted view.

One of the more peculiar features, the ability for friends to “tag your location”. This essentially lets your friends check you in. From the FAQ:

The first time you use Places, or the first time a friend tries to tag you in to a Place with him or her, you will receive a notification asking you to share your location and allow friends to check you in to Places.

At any time, you can also adjust this setting by navigating to the main Privacy Settings page and clicking the “Customize settings” link at the bottom of the page. Then, simply choose the Enabled in the dropdown box next to “Friends can check me into Places.”

There are two things at play here. The first is the default of “friends”, the second is the ability for a friend to tag you. Lets start with the default of “friends”.

Default “Friends”

Because of this notice Facebook feels the product is opt-in and not opt-out. Defaulting this to “friends” and not forcing users to select a group or groups isn’t a great idea. This is especially true for minors. Thanks to Facebook being a popularity contest, things like serial friending are too common. Exposing this type of information to that many people in real-time is reckless. Decisions on who qualifies as a friend may have been made a few years ago when the risks were different and content being exposed was much less harmful. Letting a stranger see your obnoxious status update is different than letting them know where you are.

For those not familiar with sociology, Dunbar’s number is the theoretical cognitive limit to the amount people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. It lies between 100 and 230, commonly set at 150. The *average* user has 130 friends according to Facebook’s statistics when this blog post was published. Keep in mind this is the average of all users including those who rarely and never use it and abandoned accounts. If I had to guesstimate the average for a High School or College student is likely in the low 200’s. I suspect I may actually be (intentionally) overly conservative. I don’t think anyone has real data broken down by age group (though if you do, pass it along).

We can reasonably deduce that the average teenager has more “friends” than friends. At least in some cases perhaps more than even acquaintances. Odds are they don’t even recall approving some.

Facebook should have instead made users select individual friends or groups that can view places rather than make it accessible to anyone who is a “friend”. At a minimum that should have applied to minors and those with inordinate number of friends for their demographic. Because of friending behaviors in the past the concept of a “friend” doesn’t secure this feature adequately. It may be the users fault, but “the customer is always right”.

Tagging Friends

Letting friends tag you is a whole other set of risks. I’ll quote The Consumerist since they were quite whimsical at giving examples:

This could lead to friends tagging you as being inside a peepshow, or an ex-girlfriend tagging you as being with another girl so your new girlfriend gets pissed off. The sitcom storyline possibilities are endless!

Obviously there are times most people don’t want others to know about what they are doing both innocent and nefarious. In extreme cases this could even become a safety issue. Of course crimes committed through Facebook already existed (exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C), this just makes it easier especially in the case of serial friending. No longer does someone need to solicit location information, it’s now being broadcasted.

It’s worth noting it’s possible to remove a place you were tagged:

If a friend has tagged you in a Place and you would like to remove your name, simply go to the Place story (you can find it on your profile, your friend’s profile, or the Place page) and select “Remove Tag.” You will no longer be connected to that Place through that story.

Remember that only your confirmed friends on Facebook are able to tag you in a Place if you have enabled them to do so in the “Customize settings” section of the main Privacy Settings page.

Of course that’s in retrospect.

People Here Now

Described by Facebook:

In the “People Here Now” section, you can see others who are checked in with you at that place. This section is visible for a limited amount of time and only to people who are checked in there. That way you can meet other people who might share your interests. If you prefer not to appear in this section, you can control whether you show up by unchecking the “Include me in ‘People Here Now’ after I check in” privacy control.

This has some obvious sore points. At a stadium or concert with hundreds or thousands of people it’s relatively anonymous with random faces and names. In a more intimate setting such as a restaurant or store it would relatively easy to match faces and full names. Given some basic info like a full name, network, current location a lot can be learned by using Google and public information databases. I suspect this has not so obvious implications for many who will not uncheck this preference.

Facebook should have used just first names to ensure some privacy.

Other Risks

There are other risks as well. Any serial use of such a feature will reveal patterns about your daily life such as when you leave and get home, visit the gym, etc. Timing attacks become easier when an attacker can plan without having to actually stake out a victim.

Then there’s the question of what will be done with all the data collected over time by millions of users. This isn’t 100% clear just yet. That’s a privacy issue, but not so much safety issue.

Bottom Line

Proceed with caution. Facebook did prepare for privacy implications better this time than any other release they have done in the past. This however is a whole new ballgame. Facebook could still improve by making some changes as I discussed above. Even with the defaults there are clear and present dangers. Unlike FourSquare or Gowalla where users subscribed with location sharing in mind, this was dropped on Facebook users who likely didn’t intend to share that much with that many people.

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