Facebook’s ‘Nearby Friends’ undermines online privacy

Privacy has become a thing of the past with the onset of social media. With every tweet, Instagram post and Facebook check-in, we invite fellow social media users to know more about our lives. But even with the multitude of social media features, there must be limits.

Design by Mollie Berg and Julien Nicolai

Design by Mollie Berg and Julien Nicolai


Such limits were crossed Monday when Facebook announced its new mobile feature, “Nearby Friends,” which enables users to track each other’s location in real time using mobile GPS tracking, according to CNN. The idea, envisioned to make it easier for friends to meet in person, essentially allows users to opt in to live-tracking, in which they turn on the feature and give Facebook permission to share their general location with an audience as broad as all of their Facebook friends or as selective as a customized list of friend who are also using the feature. Once users opt in, they will start receiving push notifications telling them how many of their friends are nearby, including distance and time stamps of when friends were in a certain location.

Unlike the usual “check in” option on social media apps in which users can opt to share their location, however, the Nearby Friends feature isn’t discerning. With the new feature, the days of simply sharing your location at a particular restaurant, venue or monument will be long gone. With Nearby Friends, everywhere you go — Starbucks, your doctor’s office, even somewhere as private as your residence — will be continuously tracked. What’s more, the Facebook app will continue to build a history of your locations even when the app is not in use or closed, according to Tech Crunch.

Though it’s possible for users to delete individual locations from one’s history, or clear the entire queue, the fact of the matter is that the app will continue to gather data. This isn’t just a creepy problem — it’s a security problem. One only has to look back into this past year alone to see the sheer number of websites — from Twitter to CNN — that have been hacked or compromised in some way. Sure, some people might not mind if the Facebook app knows their constant whereabouts, but what about complete strangers? The fact is that such sites, Facebook included, are not immune to security breaches.

The security concerns behind the feature aren’t the only problem — it’s the message that comes with it. According to Facebook, “Nearby Friends helps you discover which friends are nearby or on the go.” Though no one can question Facebook’s good intentions, the idea of fostering real-time meetings through social media tells users that the new way to spend time with your friends is by following their every move. How can someone opt out of hanging out with someone if their whereabouts are already known? If anything, this new feature could lead to more awkward situations than social interactions. Should one go to a coffee shop, the gym or a library, it shouldn’t be assumed that they want to spend time with others.

Social media is, by its very nature, impersonal. Though it manages to bring people together from far and wide, it has its limits — as it should. Though we individually may opt to share parts of our lives with our Facebook friends, from photos to relationships and everything in between, GPS coordinates should not be part of it. Fostering more real-time interaction between people is a lofty goal, but there are better ways of doing it.


Yasmeen Serhan is a sophomore majoring in international relations. She is also the Editorial Director of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” ran Fridays.