Yesterday CNBC broke the story that Facebook uses its platform and mobile app to track the location of its users that it deems to be “threats” to the company. Leveraging the fact that more than 2 billion people around the world have Facebook accounts and allow the company to track their location and even realtime location through their IP addresses and smartphone app, Facebook uses this information to track users it believes pose a threat to the company, creating geofencing alerts when they come near Facebook facilities. This previously unpublicized practice raises serious concerns about the ways in which Facebook may repurpose its users’ most intimate information for its own business purposes. Most seriously, it raises the question of whether Facebook may use a similar tactic to track the realtime location of journalists, diplomats and politicians around the world that it considers to be “threats” to the company’s business interests.
Like many large global companies, Facebook maintains lists of individuals that are banned from its premises. Most companies, however, are limited to matching these lists against visitor requests and alerting their security staff to be on the lookout for particularly high-risk individuals.
According to CNBC, Facebook, on the other hand, has leveraged its position as a global surveillance and intelligence database to repurpose its own platform to track problematic users in realtime. Given how many users install the Facebook mobile app on their smartphones, Facebook can use its own app to secretly track those users as they go about their lives. Without any notice or warning to the user, Facebook can simply flip a switch and view where that user is on a map and even create a geofence around its facilities to know when that individual comes near them.
On paper, Facebook’s location tracking operation exists to protect its facilities and employees from physical threats. In a request for comment, the company stated that it performs location tracking when it believes there is a credible risk of physical violence against one of its employees.
However, notably, the company’s response specifically avoided stating that this is the only reason it uses location tracking, leaving open the possibility that it may track users for other reasons.
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Asked about the ethics of using user location data, the company noted that users consent to allow the company to do whatever it wishes with their realtime location information, per its Data Policy: “Data from device settings: information you allow us to receive through device settings you turn on, such as access to your GPS location, camera or photos.”
It is worth noting that that the line above, which Facebook cited in defense of its location tracking program, also permits it to access the user’s camera and photos stored on their phone. Such access has eerie echoes of the NSA phone hacking activities publicized by Edward Snowden.
The company also cited this line in its Data Policy: “We use the information we have to verify accounts and activity, combat harmful conduct, detect and prevent spam and other bad experiences, maintain the integrity of our Products, and promote safety and security on and off of Facebook Products. For example, we use data we have to investigate suspicious activity or violations of our terms or policies, or to detect when someone needs help.”
It also cited a third line in its Data Policy with regards to accessing private user data: “When we have a good-faith belief it is necessary to: detect, prevent and address fraud, unauthorized use of the…