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Facebook says it’s not making friend suggestions based on your location could lead to unfortunate privacy

Yesterday, Fusion reported that Facebook uses location data to make friend suggestions and pointed out that this could lead to unfortunate privacy mishaps. Users could find themselves outed in situations that ought to be anonymous (for instance, Facebook might recommend that a user add a friend from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or suggest your profile to a creeper ogling you on public transit). The report wasn’t some expose-gone-wrong — a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Fusion that location data contributed to friend recommendations.

But then things got bananas when Facebook reversed itself, saying that friend recommendations aren’t based on location. The story later changed again when it became clear that Facebook had experimented with recommending new friends based on city-wide location data to a small group of users last year but discontinued the project.

Facebook now says it doesn’t currently use “location data, such as device location and location information you add to your profile, to suggest people you may know.” The company says it ran a brief test using location last year. New story here.

Facebook’s position is that the location-based recommendation experiment caused confusion on its communications team, and it ended up giving the wrong information to Fusion. Of course, there’s also the cynical version of the story: that Facebook did use location data to make friend recommendations, then backpedaled when security experts compared the practice to NSA surveillance and pointed out that it might violate Facebook’s settlement with the FTC.

We don’t get to poke around in the secret sauce that goes into friend suggestions, so we can’t say definitively how the recommendations get made. Facebook says that location data is definitely not a part of that recipe.

Facebook’s ability to discern with creepy accuracy the “people we may know” has surprised, delighted, and horrified its users for years. While the magic sauce behind friend suggestions has always been a bit mysterious, it now includes some potentially unsettling information. Thanks to tracking the location of users’ smartphones, the social network may suggest you friend people you’ve shared a GPS data point with, meaning your friend suggestions could include someone whose face you know, but whose name you didn’t until Facebook offered it up to you.

“People You May Know are people on Facebook that you might know,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We show you people based on mutual friends, work and education information, networks you’re part of, contacts you’ve imported and many other factors.”

One of those factors is smartphone location. A Facebook spokesperson said though that shared location alone would not result in a friend suggestion, saying that the two parents must have had something else in common, such as overlapping networks.

“Location information by itself doesn’t indicate that two people might be friends,” said the Facebook spokesperson. “That’s why location is only one of the factors we use to suggest people you may know.”

Facebook has gotten more aggressive in its use of smartphone location data in the last year, tracking which stores you go to in order to tell advertisers if their online ads worked and letting advertisers use your phone’s location to geotarget you with ads. But until now, most people didn’t realize that Facebook was also tracking their phone’s location to suggest friends to them.

“Using location data this way is dangerous,” said Woodrow Hartzog, a law professor at Samford University, via email. “People need to keep their visits to places like doctor’s offices, rehab, and support centers discreet. Once Facebook users realize that the ‘People You May Know’ are the ‘People That Go To the Same Places You Do,’ this feature will inevitably start outing people’s intimate information without their knowledge.”

Most Facebook users who have the app on their phone with location access granted likely don’t realize this could happen. It’s not mentioned on Facebook’s help page about how “People You May Know” works.

“This is the kind of thing that people should be given explicit and multiple warnings about,” said Hartzog.

source: Fusion,

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