In designing its new Places geolocation service, Facebook seems to have learned from its past privacy blunders. The new service has multiple layers of privacy control, but as with other aspects of Facebook privacy, users need to put some thought about whether and how they want to disclose their location. Facebook has also created an extra level of privacy for its under-18 users, prohibiting them from displaying their location to anyone other than their friends.
The first thing to know about Places is that it's not fully automatic. You have to "check in" or be tagged at a location for Facebook to display where you are. Because location is a particularly sensitive issue, Facebook, by default, shows only your location to people designated as friends, even if you have more open privacy settings for posts or other types of information.
Check-in vs. tagging
The difference between being checked-in and being tagged can be confusing. If you're checked-in by yourself or by a friend, your presence at the location is visible to anyone that either you or your friend allows, based on your friend's and your privacy settings. Your name will show up on the location's Places page, if there is one, so everyone at the location can see that you're there. If you are tagged by a friend, your presence at the location is seen by your friends or whoever they allow to see their posts, subject to their (not your) privacy settings.
You can be outed, if you don't disable friends' ability to check you in
It's also important to know that once you've used the service and agreed to its terms, any Facebook friend of yours can check you in to a location that displays that you are there, just as if you had checked yourself in.
Even if you don't agree to those terms, and even if you've never used Places or don't even own a mobile phone, any Facebook friend can tag you as being at the location, and who sees that information is subject to that person's privacy settings, not your privacy settings.
Facebook representatives are quick to point out that this is the same as with any form of tagging, such as in status messages and photos. It has long been possible for a Facebook friend to type "@LarryMagid is with me at Anotnio's Nut House." The difference with Places is that it makes it a lot easier, and you no longer have to type in the location because Places knows where you are.
You can opt out of being checked in or tagged
Although the privacy settings don't say this, I was told by a Facebook employee that if you disable the ability of friends to check you into Places, that also disables the ability for anyone to use Places to tag you as being at a location. Even if someone does tag you, you can always untag yourself, but between the time you're tagged and the time you untag yourself, people may be aware that you are at the location.
For a friend to tag you, that person must be checked into the same location, so it's not possible to "out" someone for being in a place that you're not checked into as well. You get a push notification, if someone has checked you in or tagged you, but if you're in a noisy bar and don't check your cell phone, you might not know it right away.
Options on who can see where you are
Adults have the option to share their location with a wider group of people, including "friends of friends" or "everyone," but you can also further restrict who can see your location. However, if you allow Facebook to include you in Places' "Here Now" display, your presence at a location might show up on that establishment's Places page.
A Facebook representative said "seeing the people checked in to a location is consistent with the experience of seeing people there in real life." You can, however, opt out of participating in "Here Now" via your privacy settings.
Special provisions for "minors" (under 18)
If a Facebook user is registered as under 18, the following restrictions are in place:
- Only friends will see that the minor is checked in. There isn't even an option to extend that beyond Friends
- If someone tags a minor at a location, the minor's name will only be shown to the minor's friends
- A minor's name will not be seen on a place's "Here Now" page by anyone other than the minor's friends.
How to configure settings
Facebook members should consider configuring privacy settings in advance to prevent any unwanted disclosure of your location. To control who can see the places you've checked in, click on Account in the upper-right corner, and then on Privacy Settings. Then select "Customize settings."
To the right of where it says "Places I check in," it probably has the default setting of Friends Only. You can change that by selecting another option, including Customize, which lets you further limit who can see your location to specific people, lists of people, or even "just me." You can also opt out of "Here now" by unchecking "Enable."
Below the "Things I share" section is a section called "Things others share," and this is where you can disable "Friend can check me into places."
Know who can see your location: You may have Facebook "friends" who aren't really close friends, but even if they are, you might not want them to know where you are.
Think about disabling the ability for others to "check you in": If you don't want to give others the ability to check you in, now is a good time to disable that option.
Even if you don't use Places, remember that you can be tagged, unless you opt out. If you are concerned about your friends' ability to use Places to reveal your presence at a location, configure your privacy settings to disable "Friends can check me into places." That also disables their ability to use Places to tag you.
Consider using lists to limit who can see your location: You don't have to stick with Facebook's default that allows all your friends to see where you are when you check in to a location. Consider creating a "list" of friends with whom you wish to share your location. You might have different lists, depending on location. For example, you could have "drinking buddies" who get to know which bars you're in and "work friends" who can see if you're visiting certain business-appropriate locations.
Ask before you tag: It's a good idea to talk with your friends before you tag them at a location. Being comfortable about your friends knowing that you're there doesn't necessarily mean that your friends feel the same way.
Revisit your settings: If you are allowing people to check you into places, consider changing those settings, if you are about to go to a place that you don't want others to know about. You can always change your settings temporarily and then change them back.
Talk with your kids about location services: Parents should discuss with their kids how they might use or avoid location-sharing services. Kids need to be reminded that "checking in" reveals their location to everyone on their friends list, including people they might not wish to share their location with.
Disclosure: Facebook provides financial support to ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director. ConnectSafely also serves on Facebook's Safety Advisory Board, which was briefed on Places in advance of the announcement and advised the company on safety features for minors.
ConnectSafely co-director Anne Collier posted more Places safety advice for parents.