Facebook 'Find Friends Nearby' Brings Privacy Concerns

It seems Facebook is preparing to roll out a new feature called “Find Friends Nearby”. The feature--which is designed to simplify the process of finding new friends and adding them to your social network--blurs the line a bit between the online social network and real life, and will probably draw the ire of privacy advocates.

First, a little about the feature itself--or at least what we think is known about the as yet unofficial feature. The name implies a feature that will alert you when one of the contacts from your Facebook social network happens to be nearby so you have an opportunity to meet up in real life. However, that isn’t really the way the feature works.

“Find Friends Nearby” isn’t about finding existing friends in your proximity, but rather for finding other “Find Friends Nearby” users in your proximity that might want to be friends. It’s a way to expand your social network by adding random strangers who are also interested in expanding their social network.

Facebook hasn’t officially announced the feature, but it already exists on the Facebook mobile app, and also as a standalone Web page. Under the Apps section of the menu on the iOS Facebook app, just tap Find Friends > Other Tools > Find Friends Nearby. You can also access the feature by visiting www.fb.com/ffn. You have to allow “Find Friends Nearby” to use your current location information in order for the tool to work.

The message displayed in the app states, “People who appear above are nearby and have this page open.” So, whether it’s one person, five people, or fifty, whoever is within some undisclosed range of your current location, and also happens to be using the “Find Friends Nearby” feature will show up on the list and you can simply tap the name to add them as a Friend in your Facebook social network.

The concept is similar in nature to the way the Highlight app works, and may be related to Facebook’s acquisition of Glancee. There may be some value to creating opportunities to meet people with like interests in real life, and creating a richer social network in the process, but do you really want everyone with a Facebook app on their mobile device to know where you are?

The Highlight app includes privacy settings that you select whether Everyone can see you, or just Friends of Friends. There is no option, however to limit that to only your existing Facebook Friends, or narrow it even farther to specific lists of friends.

The “Find Friends Nearby” feature in Facebook doesn’t seem to offer any way to restrict who can see you, so you should be careful. If you leave the app open, you’re essentially broadcasting your present location to everyone else in your proximity.

If Facebook wants to avoid scrutiny, or a major privacy backlash, it should implement some security controls. Users should be able to choose which groups of people to expose “Find Friends Nearby” data to the same way they can choose which groups of people to share a status update with.

[ This sponsored article was written by IDG Creative Lab, a partner of TechHive. ]

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