In August, Facebook rolled out Facebook Places, its entrant into the rapidly bloating field of services that tell everyone in your (probably more expansive than you realize) network of online friends where you are right now.
The problems with a service like this are myriad - burglars have already used it to identify when their victims are away from home, and one reporter showed how it could be used to stalk a random woman. And they all begin with a typically lax attitude toward your privacy.
Even if you aren’t the sort to whip out your smart phone every time you arrive at whatever drab locales comprise your daily routine (“Cheating at on my diet at Long John Silver’s! Hush puppies FML - LOL!1!!”), Facebook Places has two glaring errors in the design of its privacy features.
The first problem with the default settings for Places that it’s opt-out, not opt-in, meaning that unless you’ve switched it off, you are already using it. (That’s probably 95% of the people reading this right now, and likely to remain so, as the book Nudge explains.) The second flaw is that even if you don’t use Places, your friends could use it to accidentally tip off others to your location - again, with no action on your part.
Fortunately, there are people out there looking out for your privacy in the age of location-aware devices, and they created a service called Locaccino that is everything that Facebook Places, not to mention most other location-based social networks, is not.
As outlined in a recent punchy two-page paper presented at the 2010 conference on Ubiquitous Computing, Locaccino adds location-based features to your existing Facebook network. The differences between Locaccino, which was designed from the ground up to give the user control, and Facebook Places, which was probably sold internally as one more hook for advertisers, could not be more glaring:
Reading through the features of Locaccino, it occurs to me that every time Facebook, FourSquare, Gowalla or any similar service fails to prioritize transparency and control in the design of their software, they’re leaving money on the table. How many users are simply not using location-based features because of all the unknowns about how this information will be used – and mis-used – by others? Every time users are robbed of a sense of control, they grow more jaded about the potential of services like these to change how humans interact.
Even though Locaccino was an academic exercise, there are startups rising to meet the same need it so elegantly addressed: Face2Face, for example, allows you to find out who’s nearby without either of you having to reveal your exact location.
If it’s true that until now, people have connected on the Internet primarily because it makes distance irrelevant, then putting geography back into the equation is going to be tougher than the location-aware utopians realize.