Facebook admits that it tracks your location to suggest friends

A spokesperson for the website told reporters that it uses GPS data points to suggest 'people you may know.' 

Dado Ruvic/Reuters/File
People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo in this picture taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in October 2014. The social network has confirmed it uses your location to suggest friends in its "People You May Know" feature.

A Facebook spokesperson has confirmed what many people suspected: that the social network uses your location to suggest friends in its "People You May Know" feature. 

"People You May Know" shows users potential friends "based on mutual friends, work and education information, networks you're part of, contacts you've imported and many other factors," according to the official Facebook help page.

One of those "many other factors," it turns out, is geolocation data, as a spokesperson has confirmed. "But location information by itself doesn’t indicate that two people might be friends," the spokesperson said, according to The Telegraph. 

While the feature may prove useful for some, others say it could be a violation of privacy. The move by the tech giant adds yet another complexity to the privacy debate in an era of widening online connectivity, raising questions over whether the benefits of an active social network can also leave consumers vulnerable to hackers and scammers, or simply share information a user would rather keep to themselves. 

For example, one man who recently attended an anonymous meeting for the parents of suicidal teenagers reported finding another parent who had been at the meeting in his list of suggested friends the next day. The two hadn't traded any contact information, and the only connection they appeared to have was being in the same room at the same time the previous day. 

Shared location alone isn't enough to suggest someone as a friend, however. Therefore, the parents who attended the anonymous meeting must have had something else in common as well, like mutual friends or a shared network. 

However, the feature still raises concerns about privacy violations in situations where people wish to remain anonymous, says Woodrow Hartzog, a law professor at Samford University. 

"Using location data this way is dangerous," Dr. Hartzog said in an email to Fusion. "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." 

The feature can be turned off simply by turning off Facebook's access to your location. But since location isn't explicitly listed as a factor for "People You May Know" on the site's help page, it's probable that many users don't know exactly what they're signing up for when they allow Facebook to track them via GPS. 

Given that geolocation data is "far more sensitive than most of the kinds of information people probably assume are used to suggest friends, such as alma mater and mutual friends," Hartzog says, "this is the kind of thing that people should be given explicit and multiple warnings about." 

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