Location sharing software has been around for the past 5 years now. In internet years, it seems like this technology has been around forever. Yet over the past couple of years, the burgeoning smart phone industry bolstered by an ecosystem of an app for everything has really transformed the penetration of this technology. Nearly everyone owns a GPS enabled Smartphone and actively uses a few apps on it. So while the technology for sharing your location was available as early as Foursquare, it mostly required someone to understand the service and sign up for it.
A week ago, Facebook discreetly introduced a feature called “Find your friend” on both mobile and desktop versions of Facebook, that showed the real time location of your friends. Three days later, this feature was disabled, with Facebook stating that it was just a test experiment being carried out by a few engineers. With the ubiquity of always on Facebook on Smartphones, users in general need to be aware of how changes affect them. Allowing the Facebook app to automatically track and share your location has raised the hackles of many people who worry that this technology will open a whole Pandora’s Box of privacy issues.
The primary purpose of this function is to encourage the real world interactions of friends when they are near to each other physically. Sites like OKCupid with such apps, are popular specifically for this kind of service. Yet there is a difference between choosing into such a service and such a service being automatically enabled on a service that you use constantly.
The main privacy issue that is raised surrounds that of stalking which is banned by law. Reports already abound of misuse of such apps. The main fear is that integrating such a feature into Facebook which allows 13 year old children to have accounts opens the field to all sorts of unsavoury characters who may aim to harm children. Another potential class of people to abuse this system would be jilted lovers. Setting up fake accounts will allow criminals to plan kidnappings of unwary users. On a very personal note, letting all your friends know where you are at all times may just be among the worst forms of creeping invasions of privacy possible.
It has long been said that technology is a double edged sword. It is possible that this feature will help in situations when you are trying to locate a friend with a common surname like Smith. Further, advertising companies may see this as a potential for a new kind of targeted promotional campaigns, thereby helping shore up Facebook’s revenue stream. Yet, the dangers need to be fully studied, not least being user acceptance.
A major human weakness is that when we are online, we tend to downplay or neglect the risks that we take. This is evident in the prevalence of numerous scams that plague cyberspace. Users fail to adequately safeguard themselves while online. Also, most people do not spend the extra time required to understand and learn how to activate or switch-off features that they are not comfortable with. In fact, it is common for them to react with outrage when they realise what dangers they have left themselves open to. For example, people do not realise that information that is shared online even through an anonymous account can be tracked by your ISP, traced back to you and could be used as evidence in case of malpractices.
For now, it seems that Facebook will not roll out this feature. This will come as a relief to most people who are aware of the dangers of such features. We can only hope that if such a major feature is rolled out, the company takes the time and effort to make a full fledged public announcement, and also notify the users when they log in to Facebook. The democratic nature of the web ensures that users will quickly express their opinion about such features, and thereby prevent potentially dangerous features.
This is a guest post by Tina Reeves of buyVerizon.com, a site that offers savings and current information on Verizon internet.