Friend Finder or Location Tracker? Facebook’s Trust Problem, Visualized

Facebook is reportedly working on a smartphone app that can track your location. Or if you want to use spicier terminology, it's working on a "location tracker." Everybody panic!

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

Facebook is working on a smartphone app that can track your location, Bloomberg reports. Or if you want to use spicier terminology, it’s working on a “location tracker.” Everybody panic!

That sounds pretty creepy, right? Reading the headlines surrounding Bloomberg’s story, you could easily get the impression that Facebook’s working on a new way to violate users’ privacy.

But go ahead and read the second sentence in Bloomberg’s report to see what the rumored app would actually do (emphasis mine):

The app, scheduled for release by mid-March, is designed to help users find nearby friends and would run even when the program isn’t open on a handset, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren’t public.

If that still sounds frightening, I’ve got some terrible news: Your smartphone can already do this.

Apple makes an app for the iPhone called Find My Friends, which can automatically share your location with the contacts of your choosing. Google has its own version of this service called Latitude, which is built into Android and is also available on the iPhone. Both apps run continuously in the background, so your location is always up to date.

The tail end of Bloomberg’s story acknowledges that other apps have done what Facebook’s app would do. And it notes that these services haven’t caught on because of privacy issues and the battery drain caused by constant location updates. Facebook’s version probably wouldn’t be any different.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

So what’s the big deal? There isn’t one, unless Facebook somehow starts automatically tracking user locations without permission. That’s unlikely to happen if the service comes as a separate app, which would inherently require your express consent to use. Besides, a settlement between Facebook and the Federal Trade Commission prohibits the social network from making any big privacy changes without permission, so even if Facebook  was stupid enough to foist an automatic location tracker upon all its users, it would enter a legal quagmire by doing so.

Still, the tech press’ framing of this story illustrates one of Facebook’s biggest challenges right now: People reflexively view every new Facebook product as an assault on privacy, even when the product is fairly benign. (And if it’s just the tech press acting this way, then people sure love to read about it.)

The risk isn’t that users will defect from Facebook — people love to say they’re quitting the network, even as the user base keeps growing — but that they’ll disengage from all the new things Facebook tries to create.

It’d be interesting to see what happens if Facebook ever builds a true Facebook phone, as rumored over and over. Would users hail it as the ultimate way to stay in contact with your friends and family, or would they see it as a nefarious plan for Facebook to collect information about its users? Judging by the reactions to this rumored Facebook friend locator — excuse me, location tracker – the latter response seems unavoidable.

6 comments
JohnKolak
JohnKolak

The question is how benign is the service? With leftism ascendant in the country, if the administration decides to follow the path of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler, then all of the free services give the government a lot of information about you.

MelissaSwecker
MelissaSwecker

Can you asked them to fix the problems they already have.  Lots are not receiving their notifications with likes, comments and such.  any help you could give would be great. 

auronlu
auronlu

The question is, how many users that Facebook claims are active are really dead accounts?


Due to Facebook's unique way of holding an account for you, "just in case," even after you've gone through the procedure of deleting it, I'm about the only one of my friends who successfully managed to delete my FB account some years back. The rest still show up as users, and just haven't gone through the rigamarole of making sure that when they say DELETE, Facebook gives in and deletes.

We have found non-privacy-violating alternatives. Still at risk of hackers, but at least the service itself isn't mining/distributing/collecting our info and pressuring us to share more than we wish to share. 

UleNotknow
UleNotknow

@MelissaSwecker Not receiving notifications? Good! Now maybe you'll keep your attention focused on the road ahead where they should be.

MelissaSwecker
MelissaSwecker

@UleNotknow It is people like you that spout off at the mouth without have any understanding.  Just so you know, I am not a teenager, I do not play with my phone in my car and have Uconnect so when I do get a call it is not in my hands. I am a business owner (yes I know hard to believe for some small minded people) and Facebook is a major platform for me as it is with any business owner.  So, you know the saying about assuming...don't assume as it only makes you look like a @ss.