Technology & Science

Facebook launches Places location feature

Facebook has launched its Places feature in Canada, which allows users to "check in" to locations using the GPS on their smartphone and share the information with friends.

Facebook has launched its Places feature in Canada, which allows users to "check in" to locations using the GPS on their smartphone and share the information with friends.

The social networking website launched the feature in the United States in August and expanded it to Canada on Friday. Places was immediately available to users of Facebook's iPhone app and can be accessed on other touchscreen smartphones by going to touch.facebook.com. The company said it hopes to add the feature to BlackBerry and Android apps soon.

For Facebook users, Places can help friends connect with each other in the real world while businesses can also use it to attract new customers, product manager Michael Sharon said during a briefing on Friday. The feature was added because many users of the website were already sharing their locations with friends via their status updates.

"Whenever we add features to Facebook, we do it based on what people are already doing," he said.

As with many features on the social networking website, Places comes with a variety of security setting options. Users can choose to share when they check in to locations with everyone on Facebook or just with their friends. Users can also tag their friends' locations, although their friends have the option of disallowing others from identifying them.

Users can check in to existing locations, which the Facebook app detects via the smartphone's GPS. If a given location is not in the company's database, an address can be added manually, although doing so prompts the user to seek permission from whoever's information is being entered.

The feature could be used to add in a person's home address without their knowledge or permission. Sharon said there is an option that allows users to file a complaint if their information has been added without their permission. Facebook reviews such complaints and can remove them "within a matter of hours," he said.

The Places feature also has heightened security settings for minors. Although under-age users can enable the feature and choose to make their location available to "everyone" in their settings, in fact, the service will be limited to only their friends. 

A spokesperson for Facebook said this false setting has long been used with other features on the website.

Too soon to comment: Privacy Commissioner

Facebook has run afoul of privacy watchdogs around the world a number of times. Last year, Canada's Privacy Commissioner found the website was violating privacy laws by sharing users' information with third parties without consent and ordered the website to make changes.

Earlier this week, the commissioner issued a statement saying the office was satisfied that Facebook had effectively addressed the concerns.

However, the commissioner's office also said it was investigating the website's "Like" button and invitation features, which may violate privacy laws according to new complaints.

Facebook briefed the commissioner's office on Places last week, but a spokesperson declined to say what the response was.

Anne-Marie Hayden, a spokesperson for the commissioner's office, said it is too early to tell whether the new feature will pass muster.

"Obviously, we wouldn't have any complaints about it at this stage, so I don't think I can say whether it complies with federal privacy law or not," she said. "We haven't had an opportunity to thoroughly examine it.

"[Geo-location is] something we are very interested in, obviously, because there are obvious privacy issues. It's the type of thing we've been examining in a number of fora."

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