Facebook Places and online safety

If you updated your Facebook mobile app today you may have seen this image – advertising a new location-based service from Facebook, Facebook Places.

It’s only available in the US for now, but it’s coming to the EU soon, and it is likely to become the biggest location-based social media tool around. What does that mean? Well, it means that everytime you update your Facebook status via your mobile you can ‘check in’ and let your friends know where you are. So-called location-based services are the next big thing in making the internet mobile, adding the ability to tell your friends where you are as well as what’s on your mind.

I’ve been fascinated by the potential of location services for a while (yep, I am a bit geeky), and I can see a future where GPS becomes a ubiquitous part of our online life. Of course, Facebook Places is not the first social location-based service; FourSquare and Gowalla are growing fast, and Twitter opened its API last year to allow others to integrate location tracking of tweets.

This is all fun, but raises some big questions about online safety. I recently worked with the online child safety NGO alliance, eNACSO, to run a conference in Brussels on the issue. After a roundtable with Commissioner Malmstrom about her new draft Directive on Combating Sexual Abuse of Children, there was a session on Location-based Services. It became clear that even the experts on online child safety were in danger of being overtaken by this newly emerging class of applications. Although there was agreement about the implications for privacy and safety, most of the attendees were not familiar with how location-based services can work. After the session I gave an impromtu demo to a law enforcement official and some others who were present. I used an app called Layars on my iPhone to search for Tweets made in the nearby area very recently. I found a tweet from a young woman 5 mins earlier (she had a profile photo), and then the app gave me turn-by-turn directions to find her exact location, a few hundred metres away! Most of those I showed had no idea you could do this… and I doubt that the tweeter herself was aware of how accurately she could be ‘stalked’ either.

At the time I thought that we were still waiting for the ‘killer app’ – the application which would turn location services mainstream. I think Facebook Places will do this.

Facebook have learned some lessons from previous privacy backlashes, and say that Places will only be set to broadcast location to ‘friends’ and not ‘everyone’ by default. Plus the ‘check in’ feature can be completely disabled.  But is this enough to protect children? Often children have several hundred ‘friends’ on Facebook, many of whom they’ve never met in person. Given kids’ tendency to downplay privacy by leaving their settings ‘open’ (see Danah Boyd‘s research on children, social networking and privacy) , many of them will be broadcasting their location around the web throughout the day. ‘Grooming’ a child online (one of the issues covered in the draft Directive above) suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.

You need to be 13 to open a Facebook account, but my extensive research (ok, I asked my daughter) reveals that many 11 year old and younger kids already have their own Facebook page… and a mobile phone.

This is something which everyone – children, parents, and policy-makers – are going to need to get to grips with in the coming months. Commissioner Reding is going to revise the 1995 Data Protection Directive. Back in 1995 GPS was primarily still seen as a military technology. Now this technology is built in to our phones, and will increasingly form the link between our online and offline lives.  The interaction between location, internet, and privacy could prove a difficult issue to resolve.


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