Facebook Releases Controversial 'Friend Tracker' App

Brandon Dimmel's picture

Facebook has officially released a new and somewhat controversial feature that allows users to track the location of their friends. But if used maliciously, the app raises major privacy concerns.

The application is called "Nearby Friends" and it uses location information collected by smartphones. Facebook says its goal is to make it simple for people to find their friends and meet up in real life. When it's enabled, Nearby Friends shows users a list of Facebook friends who have agreed to share their location.

The app can also alert a user if a friend comes within range (such as entering the same city or county). Facebook members can also use the map to see the distance between themselves and their friends, giving them the option of plotting a route for a meet-up.

Those who like the application say it can be handy in allowing groups of friends to find each other in high-traffic areas, such as a loud concert or crowded sporting event.

Security Experts Call App "Dangerous" and "Creepy"

But the application is also raising concerns about privacy, with the Washington Post calling Nearby Friends "a little creepy." (Source: washingtonpost.com)

Security experts Rebecca Abrahams and Dr. Stephen Bryen have penned their own blog post entitled "Facebook's 'Nearby Friends' Is a Really, Really Bad Idea," in which they argue that the feature "is pretty dangerous."

"It is sending your location information on a continuing basis into a network run by Facebook," Abrahams and Bryen note. "Among the problems: your GPS is always on if you use this app, meaning you can be followed by hackers, intruders or government agencies more or less at will." (Source: huffingtonpost.com)

As far as stalking is concerned, the Nearby Friends app is worrisome. For example, the app could be secretly installed on a phone without the owner's consent, and then used to report back tracking information to a stalker.

Last but not least, Facebook could aggregate the Nearby Friends tracking information for the purpose of serving up relevant advertisements. For its part, Facebook says that it does not use GPS to target ads "right now", but that doesn't mean it won't happen in the near future. (Source:  thedrum.com)

New App Not Enabled by Default

The good news is that Nearby Friends isn't automatically enabled, meaning anyone interested in using the app will need to manually enable it. This means friends will not be able to see your location unless you go into Facebook's privacy settings and turn the Nearby Friends feature on.

Some experts, such as CNN's Heather Kelly, suggest this is an indication that Facebook has "perhaps learned from some of its past mistakes and privacy problems." (Source: cnn.com)

Some of those past mistakes include releasing user data to advertisers and constantly changing terms of service that left many members confused about how Facebook handled their most sensitive information.

Nearby Friends Now Part of Facebook

Update 20181120: Though the "Nearby Friends" app seems to have backfired, it is now officially part of the Facebook app.

To enable Nearby Friends:

  1. Tap the 3 horizontal lines menu near the top of the screen
  2. Next, tap "Nearby Friends"
  3. Tap "Turn on" to enable Nearby Friends

Note that your GPS will be used all the time, so this may eat up some of your battery.

If you wish to disable Nearby Friends:

  1. Tap the 3 horizontal lines menu near the top of the screen
  2. Tap "Nearby Friends", then tap the gear icon.
  3. In the top right, tap the slider to initiate shut off of Nearby Friends
  4. Then, tap "Turn off Nearby Friends"

For those seeking a separate app that is able to track iphone location or track Android location, we suggest using Apple iCloud for lost apple devices (such as iphone), or "Google Find My Device" for Android. Both apps are free.

What's Your Opinion?

What do you think of the Nearby Friends app? Do you think it's a good idea or a bad idea? Would you be willing to use the application, and if so, when and where do you think it would be most useful? Do you think it's likely that Facebook will use the data collected by the Nearby Friends app for advertising purposes, such as relevant ads based on GPS location?

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DavidFB's picture

Bad Idea is right. Facebook is not a neutral party. "releasing user data to advertisers" is a "past mistake"? It's ongoing. This is Facebooks function and how it makes its money. This newsletter has had past articles on companies it partners with to mine user data. I don't know why people don't get this. It's a horrid user agreement.

There may be apps where its safe to allow specific contacts to ask where you are at a specific time and for you to OK that. But keep in mind, Facebook is full of "friends" who are corporations, people you met long ago briefly, and so forth. Not safe to let them stalk you for their amusement.

People are freaked about cameras on streets, Google Glass, or smart meters that can tell what appliances you're using. This is far more advanced. Where you are tells a lot about what you're doing.

kb4169's picture

I do not have a Facebook account, have never found a need for one. But, if I did I certainly would not turn on this feature. As far as finding one's friends it would suffice to do a conference call or a group text to hook up.


shujin's picture

I understand how bad these possibilities of the missuse of this app may be as addressed by this article. However, it will not take long for molesters to use it to track juveniles (and we all know how many currently have social media accounts). I am sure the instructions for hacking their accounts to turn this app on without them knowing it will be widely accessible on the net soon. This is definitely not a good idea.

pancraziogreppi's picture

This does not surprise me because Face Book has traditionally snooped on the members.
As much as many of us think there is too much regulations; perhaps there is a need here for it.