Facebook's rumored location-tracking app: A privacy nightmare or more of the same?

Facebook has followed you around the Web, kept tabs on your Spotify listening habits, collected your check-in data, and now, the world’s largest social network wants to silently track your location, according to an online report. An unnamed Facebook smartphone app is reportedly set to be released in mid-March that would keep tabs on your location in real time and alert you when friends are nearby.

Facebook already does something similar with its check-in service, but the upcoming purported app would always be on, running in the background, according to Bloomberg. It’s not clear whether this new app would be a stand-alone program or built into the primary Facebook application.

Everybody else is doing it

While the idea of having Facebook follow you around on your daily adventures may not be appealing to some, the idea of a persistent mobile location app is nothing new. Google Latitude, introduced in 2009, and Apple’s Find My Friends, introduced in 2011, both doing something similar.

The difference, however, could be in the details of how the app works. Both Latitude and Find My Friends require you to explicitly approve each friend request before the apps start sharing your location. It’s not clear whether Facebook’s app would do something similar, or if it would just automatically start sharing your coordinates with your Facebook friends who are also using the service.

The social network’s data policies already allow for this type of automatic location sharing with your Facebook friends. “We receive data from the … device you use to access Facebook,” the policy reads. “This may include your IP address … Internet service, location, the type (including identifiers) of browser you use, or the pages you visit.” Facebook says one reason it may obtain this information is to “get your GPS or other location information so we can tell you if any of your friends are nearby.”

You may have already seen this policy in action thanks to Facebook’s check-in service (previously named Places) that was introduced in 2010. If you check-in to a location and a friend checks in somewhere else that’s nearby, you will receive a notification that your friend is in the area. So Facebook’s rumored service sounds like an extension of what the social network is already doing.

Of course, whenever Facebook starts asking you to share more information about your life, concerns from privacy advocates are never far behind. Facebook’s reputation for being relatively fast and loose with how it handles user data has already landed the social network in trouble. The company reached a settlement with the U.S. Federal Trade Commissionin late 2011 over previous privacy offenses. The deal resulted in a $16,000 fine and a promise to get user approval before making any changes to how Facebook handles user data.

Since 2011, the FTC has beefed up its punishments for privacy issues, recently fining the social networking app Path $800,000 for collecting personal information from users’ address books without their knowledge. And the federal agency also recently released some general recommendations for how mobile app developers should approach user privacy.

Big money?

But assuming Facebook really is coming out with a background location-sharing app, the lure of potential advertising dollars may override any concerns about government oversight. Along with its newly introduced Graph Search, a persistent location-sharing feature could help Facebook target ads even more effectively based on location and daily visits to particular places. It also opens up a bigger avenue for check-in deal coupons, a project also launched in 2010. If Facebook is always tracking your location, it could pop-up a deal alert that a nearby GAP is offering 50 percent off jeans, or a local coffee shop is offering a free croissant with the purchase of a latte.

This is pure speculation at this point, however, as Facebook has yet to announce a new location-sharing app or feature for its mobile products. But the prospect of sharing even more information with the world’s largest social network likely terrifies some users while exciting others.

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