Commentary

In Flip-Flop, Facebook Denies Suggesting Friends Based On Location

Yesterday, a report surfaced that Facebook was drawing on information about people's locations when recommending new friends to users.

Fusion's Kashmir Hill, who reported the item, says the company confirmed on two occasions that it used location data in its "People you may know" feature, which suggests friends to users. In other words, Facebook reportedly examined location data to determine which of its users were physically near each other -- no matter the circumstances -- and then suggested they become friends. The possible threat to privacy was immediately apparent to Hill -- and just about everyone else.

"Imagine going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and then getting 'Friend' suggestions the next day for members of the group along with their full names and profile information," she wrote. "Or visiting an abortion clinic and discovering that one of the abortion protestors outside was offered up your identity by Facebook."

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Today, however, Facebook says it was all a misunderstanding. The company today told MediaPost -- and other news organizations, including Fusion -- that it doesn't use phone location data to recommend friends.

Despite those denials, some people have reported receiving friend recommendations that appear to have been based on physical proximity, according to Fusion. Hill writes that even if Facebook isn't using smartphones' geo-location data, it still could be looking at IP addresses that people use in order to make friend recommendations based on geography.

Facebook says on its site that the "People you may know" function draws its recommendations based on "mutual friends, work and education information, networks you’re part of, contacts you’ve imported and many other factors." But the company has never spelled out those other factors. Instead, the company apparently views its friend-recommendation formula -- like its controversial news feed algorithm -- as a trade secret.

Facebook may think it has good reasons for keeping that information confidential. But given the company's history of violating users' privacy, it would do well to shed a little more light on how it goes about making friend recommendations.

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