Social media giant Facebook is rolling out its new “Nearby Friends” feature that will tell users how close they are to people on their friends list. This feature, which carries with it a variety of privacy concerns, will not be turned on by default. Unlike other additions to the social network that were turned on upon launch, Nearby Friends is entirely optional.
The feature has been in the works for a while and Facebook executives have been talking about location tracking features for many years. Typically, when Facebook adds a major feature to its site, it is doing so with advertising in mind. With Nearby Friends, the social network has already stated that it will eventually use the information gathered from tracking users to enhance its advertising options.
A Useful Feature
Many of Facebook’s features are easy to set up, but that is not necessarily the case with Nearby Friends. The new service comes with a wide variety of options, most of which exist to combat privacy concerns, particularly those dealing with other users and not the site itself.
Social networks are already used by malicious individuals who can rely on updates and location information to stalk other people. By adding a real-time location tracker to Facebook, the potential for criminal abuse is even higher. Luckily, users who choose to enable the feature must be at least 18 years old and after it is turned on, they have multiple privacy-centric options at their disposal.
By default, Nearby Friends will only broadcast the general location of a user. Therefore, people will only know what city other people are in as well as how far away they are. Users have the ability to chose who can see their locations as well, by narrowing down their friends list to “close friends” or even a specific list of people. In situations where it is beneficial for one user to know another user’s exact location, the option to enable detailed location sharing is available and can be adjusted to remain in effect for a certain time period.
One aspect of Nearby Friends has already provided some insight into how Facebook will use the service once it becomes mainstream and the roll out is completed. The component in question is the location log. Users who turn on Nearby Friends have no choice but to allow the network to create a list of a person’s previous locations.
Even though they have some control over this component -- users can manually delete individual locations -- Facebook has admitted that the feature will eventually be used for advertising purposes. A company spokesperson told TechCrunch that “at this time [Nearby Friends is] not being used for advertising or , but in the future it will be.”
We caught up with Jeffrey Chester, Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, to get his view on the new tracking feature. He told us that Facebook will encourage people to enable the services so that advertisers can benefit from the extra information.
"Facebook is expanding its close tracking of ourselves and our friends in order to sell us to their advertisers," says Chester. "Facebook users should not allow their location to be sold to the highest bidder -- and accessible to people who want to spy on our activities."