The privacy pros and cons of Facebook Places

Facebook has actually been applauded for attempts to make privacy a key area in its new service.

As for the criticism, however, the devil is in the detail of the settings available to users.

One problem with Places is the default settings. The default for visibility of check ins and Here Now is in line with a user's existing settings but these may not be appropriate for Places, as this is a service notably different to anything Facebook has done before.

For some users, they may realise the default settings were not exactly what they wanted before it is too late, and they feel their privacy has been compromised.

What many have called for is even more simplicity from Facebook, so rather than being given the default settings, users are provided with more information from the off about how these work in Places.

Privacy groups have also raised concerns surrounding the Here Now feature. The main issue is that the user is not handed complete control over who can see they are in a particular place. Instead they can only turn it on or off, as noted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

Furthermore, those who have previously selected the Everyone' sharing option will have Here Now switched on by default, meaning they will need to make alterations if they are not happy with the settings for that particular feature.

Another privacy group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), has suggested Facebook should let people supply fake locations if they do not want others to know exactly where they are.

The organisation explained: "Sometimes you may have personal or professional reasons to report a different location. For example, you might want to report your location as being at a cafe, when you are really at an HIV clinic or a domestic violence shelter. While you can have a friend check you in anywhere they are, or spoof your geolocation if you have sufficient technical chops, Facebook should allow arbitrary locations."


Perhaps the truest statement about problems with Places privacy comes from the EFF: "The settings are only good if users understand them intuitively and use them effectively."

Viewed one way, it it is up to Zuckerberg and co to guide users through Places, as has often been the case with other Facebook privacy issues. Efforts so far seem admirable. The company has made real progress in this area, and if it continues in this vein, privacy may not be the bugbear it has been for so much of the social network's existence so far.

Facebook should extend its selection of privacy options, to address niggles within sub-features of Places. But users need to take some responsibility too: if they use Places, they should explore the range of options available to them to guarantee they have the level of privacy they want.

So once Places is made available in the UK, as surely it will be soon, there are not too many reasons to panic about privacy.

Tom Brewster

Tom Brewster is currently an associate editor at Forbes and an award-winning journalist who covers cyber security, surveillance, and privacy. Starting his career at ITPro as a staff writer and working up to a senior staff writer role, Tom has been covering the tech industry for more than ten years and is considered one of the leading journalists in his specialism.

He is a proud alum of the University of Sheffield where he secured an undergraduate degree in English Literature before undertaking a certification from General Assembly in web development.