Nowhere to hide: New Facebook app to track offline users – report06/02/2013 05:09
Reuters / Regis Duvignau
Those concerned about Facebook’s controversial privacy policies may have yet another reason to worry. The social network is reportedly developing a smartphone application which will track the location of its users – even when the app isn't running.
The app is scheduled to be released in mid-March, two anonymous sources told Bloomberg.
It’s allegedly designed to help users find nearby friends by revealing those friends’ locations. But unlike Facebook’s current mobile app, which allows users to let others know where they are by “checking in” at a location, the new app would continuously follow the user once the program is activated.
The app would track user whereabouts in the “background” of Apple’s mobile operating system – even when the app isn’t open on the phone, one of the sources said. It remains unclear whether the app will run on other platforms.
It’s a technique that would likely require the social networking site to ask permission from users. But there’s a loophole – Facebook may have already gotten consent from its users to run the feature.
The app may fall under Facebook’s data policy – which tells users that a company may use location information “to tell you and your friends about people or events nearby, or to offer deals to you that you might be interested in.”
“When we get your GPS location, we put it together with other location information we have about you (like your current city)…but we only keep it until it is no longer useful to provide you services, like keeping your last GPS coordinates to send you relevant notifications,” the data use policy says.
The app isn’t drastically different from current applications, such as Apple’s “Find My Friends” and Math Camp Inc.’s “Highlight,” which constantly track user locations to help people find friends or places of interest.
When approached by Bloomberg to speak about the tracking application, Facebook Spokesman Derick Mains declined to comment.
Based on past precedents, the new app is bound to raise concern from users who value their privacy.
Facebook is no stranger to controversy surrounding its privacy settings. The site has already been under fire from US and European regulators, who claim it doesn’t do enough to keep user data private.
In early January, the EU pressured internet giants such as Facebook to boost personal security controls and limit the collection of data without users’ consent.
Last September, the site was forced to stop using its facial recognition software in Europe following an investigation by the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland.
And now, the social network’s new “Graph Search” system – which is waiting to be tested – is raising red flags.
The system is designed to search Facebook for very specific information, such as ‘Friends who like Star Wars and Harry Potter’ and ‘Languages my friends speak.’
But after using the system, computer programmer and ‘Gadget Geek’ Tom Scott found the program can conduct much juicier searches.
For instance, it will easily find ‘Married people, who like prostitutes’ or ‘Current employers of people who like racism,’ Scott revealed in a blogpost.
News of the location tracking app comes less than one week after Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg emphasized the need for new mobile products during Facebook’s Fourth Quarter Earnings Conference Call, which was broadcast on the internet.
“A lot of what we had to do last year was simply to improve our mobile development process…the next thing we’re going to do is get really good at building new mobile-first experiences,” Zuckerberg said during the call.
And while this may, indeed, be a “mobile-first experience,” it remains unclear whether it’s an experience that Facebook users will actually want.