Facebook Places ‘Checks In’ To Britain

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Social networking giant Facebook has brought its new geolocation feature to the UK

Facebook has turned on its controversial “Places” feature in the UK only a month after the service launched in the US, encouraging mobile users to share their current location with friends on the social network.

The service comes in the form of a smartphone application that allows users to “check-in” via GPS at whatever restaurant, event or place of interest they happen to be visiting at the time. The app posts an update in their friends’ Facebook news feeds, as well as showing up in the recent activity section on the page for that place. Users can also view friends that have checked in nearby.

The Places feature is available as an iPhone application or via Facebook’s smartphone site, for users whose mobile browser supports HTML 5 and geolocation.

Protecting your privacy

“Our products are modelled on how people are already using the site,” Michael Sharon, the product manager of Facebook places told the Telegraph. “We realised people were already posting where they were and who they were with every day.”

However, the privacy implications of such a service have been the subject of some concern.  According to Facebook, when users check in to Places they can also tag friends who are with them, “just as you can tag a friend in a status update or photo”. But many commentators have pointed out that people might not want their Facebook friends to know where they are.

This week, for example, it was reported that a burglary ring in New Hampshire had been using the geolocation features of Facebook to find out when people were away from away from their homes.

“Something like Places on Facebook broadcasts people’s locations on a platform that has 500 million users,” said Gareth Kloet, head of home insurance at Confused.com. “You don’t need to be an insurance provider to see the risk that poses.”

Malicious coders are also already showing signs of exploiting the potential of geolocation. Last month a Trojan was uncovered in an Android app, which reports GPS location data to a third party.

Who’s watching you?

Facebook Places also offers a “People Here Now” section, allowing users to see others who have checked in at that place – whether they are friends or not.

“This section is visible for a limited amount of time and only to people who are checked in there,” said Facebook in a blog post. “That way you can meet other people who might share your interests. If you prefer not to appear in this section, you can control whether you show up by unchecking the ‘Include me in People Here Now after I check in’ privacy control.”

This relies, of course, on users being savvy enough to check their selected preferences. Monica Basso, vice president of mobility and collaboration at analyst firm Gartner, acknowledges that Facebook has tried to be rigorous in implementing its privacy settings, but also foresees potential problems.

“Of course, privacy will be an extremely critical aspect for the successful adoption and continuous growth of Facebook,” Basso told eWEEK Europe. “We expect to see many situations where lack of experience of the users (or unclear information sharing with third party providers) will generate problematic situations for Facebook users and possible push back.”

Despite this, however, Gartner sees this new feature as further confirmation that Facebook will become the hub for social integration and web socialisation by 2012.

“A huge range of mobile location-aware applications will appear on the market in the next months, enabled by this new Facebook capability,” said Basso. “In fact, Facebook is not simply a social network which grows at rapid pace – particularly on mobile usage. Facebook is also a platform, which provides a framework for developers to create applications that interact with Facebook features.

A social web

“Through its application programming interface (API), other websites and applications can be made social, for example, by sharing content, invites and events with the Facebook community. Through these mechanisms, Facebook will support and take a leading role in developing the distributed, interoperable social web. This is what makes Places’ announcement very relevant,” she added.

However, Facebook’s new geolocation feature could spell trouble for existing location-based social networking services, like Foursquare and Gowalla. These services have picked up a loyal following over the last year, although a recent market research report from Forrester found that location-based social networks have been slow to take off – with some 84 percent of users surveyed still not familiar with these applications.

Google has already launched its effort in geo-location, with the Latitude API, announced in May, which lets Google’s users place their identity and see other users on Google Maps.

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