Facebook Places – how to turn it off

Earlier this week, Facebook announced their location sharing service “Facebook Places“. If you’re familiar with services like Foursquare and Gowalla then you’ll know what to expect here… when you’re out-and-about you ‘check-in’ at your destination – an action which lets your friends (and possibly other people) know where you are. Like a lot of social media broadcast services there’s bound to be a certain amount of ego associated with location sharing – “I’m out at an exclusive/expensive/exciting place and you’re not” but the services talk about the benefits to users such as discovering your friends are in the pub next door so you can meet-up and share a beer.

However there are differences between Foursquare/Gowalla and Facebook. Facebook has, time and time again, played fast and loose with its users’ information and privacy. The general vibe I get from Facebook is that they’re only providing a service in order to get data from you that they can exploit and/or sell. Over the last year I’ve gradually reduced the amount of information I have on there, the amount of information I add and the level to which I share it. I just don’t feel comfortable with the site – yet, with any social media service, you have to be where the people are in order to make the connections so I keep my account active. I tend to use it as a back-up service to Twitter… somewhere for conversations that can’t be constrained into 140 characters (which is kinda weird of me because, as someone pointed out the other day, my Twitter stream is unlocked so EVERYBODY can see that and do what the hell they want with it).

Facebook Places isn’t available in Canada yet but they HAVE enabled the privacy settings so you can go in there and preemptively set your privacy before it comes North of the border. This is important even if you don’t intend to use the service.

You need to click Account->Privacy Settings->Customize Settings. Then there are three different settings to adjust:

  • “Things I Share->Places I check in” determines how widely your whereabouts will be broadcast. Do you want everybody to see where you are? Just your friends? Just a subset of your friends? Nobody at all? The most private you can get with this setting is to click on “Custom” and select “Only Me” from the list box

  • “Things I Share->Include me in ‘People Here Now’ after I check in” will cause your presence to appear in lists of people at an establishment/event. Depending on Facebook’s implementation, this might override your “Places I check in” setting and let people outside your friends list see where you are. If you’re interested in your privacy you probably want to disable this setting

  • “Things Others Share->Friends can check me in to Places” is super-important. It’s the geo equivalent of having other people tag you in photos. Worse in fact. If someone checks you in as being down the pub in the middle of the afternoon there’s nothing to show that you WEREN’T actually there. At least with a photo other people can look at the photo and SEE that you aren’t in it. If this option isn’t disabled then your whereabouts and your privacy are totally out of your control. I suspect all but the most cavalier of users will want to set this option to Disabled. Even if you never intend to use Facebook Places yourself, you should go and turn this setting off

Good luck and be careful out there.

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