Can you trust Facebook Places?

How long will it be before Facebook's new check-in service, Places, starts sharing your movements with the world?

Facebook, the company many people don't trust to protect their status updates and personal information, is now in the business of collecting location information, thanks to the introduction of its Foursquare/Gowalla killer, Facebook Places.

Like those other services, Facebook Places will let you "check in" to various spots in the real world via cell phone (mostly iPhones, at first), tell your friends where you are, and see if any of them are there too.

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So not only does Mark Zuckerberg know who you are, where you live, what school you went to, what religious and other affiliations you have, and what you think on a daily or even hourly basis, he also knows where you like to drink $4 double mocha frappuccinos and eat McFatty burgers.

Don't look now, but some sweaty billionaire in a hoodie is following you.

Remember, Zuckerberg is the guy who once called other people "dumb fools" for sharing their email and photos with him (only he didn't use the word "fools"). He also more recently opined:

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

Of course, just like Facebook itself, nobody is forcing you to use Facebook Places, just as you aren't forced to use Foursquare, Gowalla, or any of the other location check-in services Places is about to crush.

And this time out, Facebook is being a little bit smarter about privacy. By default, location check-ins are limited to people in your friends list, though you can change the setting to "Everyone" if you feel like it. You can get more granular by using Facebook's lists feature to create groups of friends who can -- or can't -- view your check-ins. Your friends can "tag" you as also being at a location, but you'll have to approve the tag before they can broadcast your location to anyone else. Once you say yes, though, they can tell the world where you are whenever they feel like it, until you opt out.

Everything's copacetic, right? Well, not exactly. Facebook has a "Here Now" feature that tells you which other Places users are checked into the same location as you, regardless of whether they're your friends, and vice versa. That option is enabled by default. Don't like it? You can turn it off, but you can't adjust it so that only your friends can find you Here Now.

As the ACLU points out, Facebook applications and third-party sites using Facebook Connect can also access your location info. You'll have to dig into Facebook's less-than-crystalline privacy settings again to shoo them away.

And then Gartner analyst Ray Valdes asks about this edge case:

What if a place changes ownership? What if there is a restaurant that users check into, that later becomes a strip club, without changing its name? (Your history of checkins would become a social liability.)

Honey, Miss Kitty's House of Bondage and Domination used to be a burger joint, I swear. I only went there for the fries.

The answer from Facebook? We don't know yet, we'll figure it out later. Nice.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kurt Opsahl points out the obvious threats:

Like all location products, the new application publishes potentially sensitive information, since a stream of information on location can provide a detailed picture of your life. Some locations might appear cool at one moment, and yet become something you'd rather forget the next. Your Facebook friends may include prolific bloggers, business competitors, and former lovers. For business and personal reasons, you might need to keep your location private from them. And, as effectively illustrated, revealing your location can also reveal sensitive information about where you are not.

Remember also, that the phrase "Facebook security" has become a modern oxymoron. Over the past few months, a half dozen hacks and security flaws have been uncovered that reveal information Facebook assured us was private and protected. Will our location data really be any different?

Personally, I've never really understood why people use these location services or the sudden endorphin rush they seem to get when they're proclaimed "mayor" of a site for checking in most often. I can totally understand why advertisers and merchants would want this information, though.

And what a boon for law enforcement. All they'd need is a warrant to get a detailed history of your movements, or a wiretap order for Facebook to feed them real-time location tracking. Why canvas the neighborhood for witnesses when you can slap a subpoena on Facebook and go out for doughnuts?

Let's assume you don't care about any of that and decide to use Facebook Places anyway. Answer me this:

* What assurances do you have that Facebook will be able to keep this information private and secure, if it wanted to?

* When does Facebook decide that "location sharing is the new social norm" and makes all your locations available to everyone by default?

* When does Facebook decide that it will share your location information with a few "carefully chosen third-party sites?"

In short, do you trust Facebook? Given its history, I can't see why -- unless, of course, you're one of those "dumb fools" Mark Zuckerberg likes so much.

Will you use Facebook Places? Why or why not? E-mail me:

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Robert X. Cringely

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