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.