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Places you may have visited

By Nicola Freeman

Concerns continue to grow over Facebook’s new Places application, which allows users to check-in and let friends know where they are. At face value, Places sounds harmless enough, satisfying the look-at-me urges of a few thousand members, while providing a credible alternative to location-based competitors like Foursquare.

The problems start when users also seek to check-in their friends. Let’s look at an example. Dave is at a trendy downtown bar waiting to meet his ex-girlfriend Linda and wants the whole world – or at least his Facebook world – to know. He checks himself in and, because Linda is one of his Facebook friends, he checks her in as well.

Meanwhile, Linda has been having second thoughts. She recently started dating another guy and doesn’t want to risk upsetting him. As all three of them have mutual friends, both on and off Facebook, “new guy” could easily find out about the drink with Dave and get the wrong idea. At the last minute she decides not to show up. Dave will get over it.

But Linda is also smart. She knows Dave has a habit of broadcasting his social life to the world, so she goes on Facebook and blocks Dave on Places. This way, if he tries to check her in at the bar, it won’t appear on her page. Linda relaxes and turns on the TV – she just sidestepped a potential minefield.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Unbeknownst to Linda, Dave had already checked her in, before he realized she was a no-show. Although the Places update didn’t appear on Linda’s page, it’s there on Dave’s page for all the world to see, including the new boyfriend.

By now, Dave is fully aware that Linda’s not going to show up and he’s partly  ticked off and partly embarrassed. He will look stupid if he checks-in again, this time on his own; everyone will know what happened. He decides to leave the Places update as it is. He won’t lose any face and it serves her right for standing him up.

Too far-fetched? Hardly. With 500 million people on Facebook and many people’s pages littered with ex-boyfriends and even more complicated relationships, it’s easy to imagine this kind of thing happening all the time. Admittedly, the vast majority of members have not even taken the time to understand what Places is all about. But in many ways, that makes it worse, leaving them even more vulnerable to erroneous check-ins, whether posted innocently or not.

So far, Facebook has responded by pointing out that there has never been anything to stop members claiming that they are with someone even if they are not. They could just make up some fictitious story and post it to their news feed.

That’s true, but somehow Places seems more official. It’s specifically designed to disclose people’s locations and, if someone appears in a Places map, then that will carry a lot of weight. To post a later update claiming that you weren’t where Places said you were at best creates a lame “he said, she said” debate, or at worst looks like a cover-up.

We are in the early days of Places and people are just starting to get to grips with how it works and what it all means. But if the current operating rules are allowed to stand, the Facebook privacy debate just got a whole new lease of life!

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