Social media has undoubtedly changed the way we think about privacy. With the ability to share personal data and updates with thousands of people at a time, often with the touch of a few buttons, today’s computer users may have grown a little too accustomed to keeping the entire world in the know about their personal lives.
A new feature from Facebook speaks to the heart of that very dilemma, and it has users fairly evenly divided over the pros and cons of the tool. Called Nearby Friends, this feature allows Facebook users to see which of their friends is actually in their close physical proximity by tracking those friends’ cell phones. This optional feature, meaning both you and the person you’re able to see have to have elected to turn on this tool, is intended only for account holders who are ages eighteen and up, and who have left the GPS settings enabled on their phones.
The team at Facebook envisions a world where knowing this kind of location detail about other people is a positive thing. Imagine a situation in which your car breaks down—or even better, your college-aged daughter’s car breaks down—and you can simply consult your smartphone to discover which one of your Facebook friends is close enough to lend a hand. Supporters of the feature have offered hypothetical scenarios in which an elderly loved one has wandered away from home, and (somehow) has remembered to bring her cell phone with her. By consulting Nearby Friends , her family members can see her location. Of course, these technologies are not always going to be used by those who have others best interests in mind.
Here is an example of such a scenario: a teenage girl who has fudged her age and has thousands of other teenage friends on Facebook, many of whom she connected with because they were connected to other people she knows on Facebook. She consults Nearby Friends and discovers that her good friend’s friend “Dylan” is only two blocks away from the mall where her parents dropped her off. They click on each other’s avatars and arrange to meet.
When she gets there, she discovers that “Dylan” is actually a 35-year-old man named Michael. You can imagine the danger here. That was a really harsh example, but it’s something that social media users must keep in mind.
The problem with Nearby Friends is that Facebook’s very policies operate under the assumption that everyone is honest on social media. Not only do you have to be at least thirteen to have an account, which you “prove” by checking a box, but you have to be at least eighteen years old to use Nearby Friends, which again, you only prove by telling Facebook when your birthday is. It’s also a violation of Facebook’s terms of service to send a friend request to someone whom you don’t know in real life, but does anyone listen? Friend requests happen frequently through friend-of-a-friend status, which Facebook supports by allowing users to “suggest” friends to each other. Finally, the only way Facebook knows someone violated its terms is if someone reports him, something that many people claim is “bad etiquette” in the world of social media.
We cannot blame Facebook for this. The tool, when used correctly, could be fun, and can actually have useful purposes. But if we look down the road and see potential problems from this feature, we really do have to blame ourselves and our online behaviors. Do your kids or grandkids have social media accounts, and are they old enough to know all of the potential dangers involved in using them? Do you have a tendency to “overshare” important personal details or photographs? Do you really know who your Facebook friends are?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with virtually meeting people through a computer screen, even if they’re strangers, as long as you safeguard your personally identifying information and know about the hazards of giving away too many details. But when we try to bridge the worlds of computer friendships and real-life, face-to-face interactions, we may be opening ourselves up for danger.
If you found this information helpful, you may want to consider taking part in the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Anyone3 fundraising campaign. For more information or to donate please visit http://www.idtheftcenter.org/anyone-3.