Facebook unveiled its latest mobile feature this week, an app dubbed Nearby Friends, which allows users to track the coming and goings of people on their friends list, has caused the concern of civil libertarians, not to mention the panic of teenagers, adulterers and ne’er-do-well’s alike. The new app is an optional feature which activates a homing device (similar to GPS) providing occasional notifications of friends which are geographically close to you. While Facebook stresses it is an optional feature, in which users choose whether to activate or not and which friends can access their location, privacy advocates worry this technology is another step in the direction of a society in which every individuals whereabouts will be readily available at the touch of a button.
The application certainly has its tangible benefits, such as simplifying the process of meeting a friend for lunch in an unfamiliar part of town, or guiding lost relatives en route to Thanksgiving dinner, but critics will point to the potential for abuse and the likelihood that information such as this will be used for dubious purposes by people whose intentions are far from benign.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) policy attorney Chris Conley noted that it is Facebook’s duty to keep users regularly informed of everyone with whom they’ve allowed to track them. He also worries how wide-ranging the access will go. “It’s not entirely clear what Facebook will collect and whether the government or another third-party might come asking for that,” Conley says.
Once activated, the app will collect and post data, including tracking users when not using the app or logged out of Facebook, which has raising further civil liberty concerns that Nearby Friends will divulge information users had no intention of sharing. Another potentially troubling aspect of the app is that it stores historical data of where users have visited or traveled. Thus, make sure you have your story straight when your significant other asks you to remind them why you were an hour late getting home last Thursday.
The announcement of the new feature caused concerned parties to recall the problems related to Tinder, a mobile dating device which collects phone location data to help its users anonymously search for other users for quick hook-ups. IncludeSecurity, a cyber-security research firm, discovered that Tinder had gaps in its security apparatus and was releasing data of users locations for months before being notified of the glitch.
Conscious of this and other potential problems, the Center for Digital Democracy executive director Jeffrey Chester has called on the D=Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to review the product. In anticipation of such concerns, Facebook issued a statement assuring that users will receive regular updates and reminders about Nearby Friends and that they are working closely with the FTC and other regulatory agencies to ensure user privacy is protected.
There is no question the new feature can be a useful and valuable tool. One can see that its initial personal use can evolve and be utilized by businesses to better advertise and drive new customers. That said, it is incumbent on Facebook to assure concerned Nearby Friends users that the tracking application will protect our civil liberties as well as showing us where our daughter’s soccer team went to eat pizza after practice.
By Paul Winters