Facebook Launches ‘Nearby Friends’, Raising Questions About Privacy

fbprivacyFacebook began implementing its new “Nearby Friends” feature today, after spending more than two-years developing the new function. As its name implies, ‘Nearby Friends’ gives Facebook’s 1.3 billion active users the ability to see where their friends are in real-time. Much like the Nintendo 3DS which lets fellow gamers see where their friends are, Facebook users can now tell if their social media connections are eating, drinking, or otherwise hanging out nearby. Depending on where they stand on issues of privacy, Facebook’s users are either elated or enraged by the new feature.

The Implications on User Privacy and Safety

“Facebook stalking” is a term used half-jokingly among friends when they’re spending too much time reading through other users’ statuses, photos, and the like, but other cases of actual stalking have been recorded, cases in which the big blue social media platform was used to help people follow and victimize others. A 2012 story in the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph tells the tale of Lorna Smith, a woman who was stalked and murdered by a man using a fake Facebook account. If Facebook users can use the service to see where their “friends” are in real time, some wonder, who can say what that means for safety?

Of course, part of the problem is with Facebook itself. The social media behemoth has such a shaky privacy record that following the purchase of mobile messaging service WhatsApp in February, the Federal Trade Commission made a very public warning to Zuckerberg and the gang about violating WhatsApp’s privacy rules and acting in illegal and/or unethical ways towards its newly bought user-base.

“When you’ve been indoctrinated into this whole social media thing, you have the ability to connect with so many people,” explains Jesse Case, Creative Director at SKYGATE Media. “Your friends list is only limited by time. For the younger generations, I can imagine that there might be a privacy concern. There may need to be an age restriction for this kind of feature.”

Facebook Reps Say There Should Be No Privacy Concerns

The company is well aware of the public’s opinion of its privacy track record. However, for Andrea Vaccari, leader of the Glancee development team that engineered ‘Nearby Friends’ which Facebook purchased in 2012, the privacy concerns are premature, at the very least. The goal, Vaccari says, isn’t to violate anyone’s privacy, but to give them a useful new tool for networking and meeting up with friends. “The idea is to make it really easy to discover when someone is around you, and meet up and spend time together,” Vaccari said in an interview with Tech Crunch.

Responding to criticisms about the product’s privacy, she’s quite confident, too. “The way the product is built is safe by default,” she points out. The fact is that to use ‘Nearby Friends,’ you have to go into your settings and actually turn it on. Meaning, unless you forget to turn it off, no one can know where you are unless you choose to share that information. Whether Facebook users will find that to be enough of a hurdle and if some anonymous web entity will find a work around for this potentially powerful technology remains to be seen.

Will you use Facebook’s new ‘Nearby Friends’ tool? If not, what’s holding you back?

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