Facebook’s Nearby Friends: Building "IRL" Connections While Undermining Your Privacy

jaredchowe
Jared Howe Senior Technical Communicator, PRIVATE WiFi

Posted on June 13th 2014

Facebook’s Nearby Friends: Building "IRL" Connections While Undermining Your Privacy

nearby friend on FacebookNearly two years ago we reported that Facebook was planning to launch a new feature that would help users locate their friends “In Real Life.” And now “Nearby Friend” is a reality, allowing mobile users to see which of their contacts is in their current vicinity. This tool is optional, and you can also set it for specific groups of friends.

Before turning it on, let’s take a deeper look into the privacy repercussions of using the feature.

Your Location Information is both Valuable and Revealing

First, in order to use this tool, you have to keep your mobile phone’s GPS on, meaning that you can be followed and tracked by anyone, not only Facebook, but by hackers, your other apps and services, or even governmental agencies. Remember, if your phone’s GPS is on, your phone is basically a tracking device, sharing your information with whoever has the technology and permissions to gather it.

Where you go, who you visit, and how you spend your time can reveal a lot about you and your life patterns. If someone has your location information, they can glean insight into how you live your life. In the wrong hands, this is dangerous information.

You Are the Product

Second, Facebook has made it clear that they will track and record your location information even when you are not logged into Facebook. Below is the actual description of the app from Facebook:

“When Location History is on, Facebook builds a history of your precise location, even when you’re not using the app.”

So they are going to track and store your location, and the ACLU is concerned because Facebook has not revealed exactly what they intend to do with this information, including who they will share it with.

But one thing is clear: your location information is valuable, and advertisers will pay a lot for it. So when you are using this app, Facebook will be tracking where you go and then using this information to make money.

Keeping Your Personal Information Private

Facebook says “Nearby Friends” will create more chances to hang out with people IRL. On the surface, this seems to be a convenient new tool for people to stay connected with their friends and family. A user must opt-in to the feature and be 18 years of age.

But what are you paying for this so-called “free” tool? Remember, services like Gmail and Facebook are free because in exchange for using them, you agree to let them gather your personal information and sell it to third parties. This personal information is valuable: Facebook and Google make billions each year based on our personal information.

Nearby Friends is just one more way that Facebook can gather and monetize your private information. Some may be ok with this Faustian bargain, but if you are concerned about keeping your private information actually private, Nearby Friends is an app that you will want to avoid.

jaredchowe

Jared Howe

Senior Technical Communicator, PRIVATE WiFi

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Technical Communicator. He has worked in high tech for over 15 years, and lives in Seattle with his wife and two cats.

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Comments

I feel like I have a very liberal view on privacy. I know that in the near future, the convenience of technology will override our need for privacy. In fact, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks have been pushing our privacy limits for years. We post things to our social networks about our private lives that 10 years ago would have seemed outrageous and a serious breech of privacy if the online world saw it.

While Nearby Friends is definitely a way to monetize our actions and right now, I don't see much of a use for the feature, I think it's the first step towards a future convenience of technology. One day, if we drive past the pharmacy, and our perscription is ready, we'll get a notification. Our refrigerator will have sensors and will be able to notify us that we also need milk when we're at the supermarket.