Facebook Places Privacy Falls Short, Part 2: Opting-Out

A few days ago I blogged about how I was able to check my wife into a local liquor store using Facebook Places without her permission, despite Facebook’s insistence that “No one can be checked in to a location without their explicit permission”. This check-in has remained visible in my news feed, and depending on  my privacy settings, may be viewable by any logged in Facebook user. Presumably there also is a database at Facebook that contains a record of my checking-in my wife into this location. Again, all without my wife’s explicit consent to participating in this new “feature”. (Please see that post for more details and valuable discussion, plus news coverage, of this discovery.)

Now, four days later, my wife had a chance to react to the notification she received from Facebook regarding my tagging her, and I thought I’d share a few more reactions to her attempt to opt-out of Places altogether.

First, it is important to note that until my wife took any action, my ability to check her into places in this fashion remained. She’s a busy person, and generally only checks her personal email account a couple of times a week. Today was the first chance she had to log in and view the message Facebook sent regarding my attempt to check her into the liquor store.

Notice how the email prompts you with an enticing green “Allow Check-ins” button, and only a smaller textual link to learn more about what this is all about. Remembering that I’ve been talking about Places around the house the past few days, my wife figured she didn’t want anything to do with it, so she just ignored the email altogether. I suspect many others would do the same, and as a result, there was zero opportunity here to adjust the privacy settings to prevent any future interaction with Places or fully opt-out of the feature.

Next, my wife decided to log into her Facebook account itself. She’s not all that active on Facebook, with her last meaningful update being a note in May about, coincidentally, my appearance on NPR’s Science Friday about Facebook and privacy. Thankfully, and to Facebook’s credit, upon logging in she was immediately met with a prompt to act upon my attempt to check her in to the liquor store.

Here, the two primary options are “Allow Check-Ins” and “Not Now”. There’s again a secondary text link to “Learn more”.  My wife, again, didn’t want anything to do with Places, and said out loud “how do I just turn it off”. Obviously, there’s no simple way of doing that from this prompt, as clicking “Not Now” just makes the prompt disappear, but nothing else happens. There’s no suggestion to go check out your privacy settings. Hopefully users will click “Learn more” to discover what Places is and their privacy options; but in the case of my wife (a very well-educated and web-savvy user), she just clicked “Not Now” and was left with nothing.

Thankfully, I suggested she go to her privacy settings to properly opt-out of the Places feature. But once there, she was met with what appeared to be the same array of privacy options that was launched earlier this year.

Looking more closely one notices, embedded in the light gray list of privacy options, a “Places I check into” category, withe a little question mark. Hover over that icon, and you learn what this item is about.

Following the prompt, my wife clicked on “Customize settings”, which brought her to another familiar page of privacy settings, again with no obvious indication of what new settings were added for the Places feature. After hunting, she finally noticed the “Places I check in to” and “Include me in “People Here Now” after I check in” options, which she modified.

And then she figured she was done.

Until I pointed out there were more privacy settings that required adjustment to fully opt-out of Places. Further down this page is perhaps the most important privacy setting: “Friends can check me in to Places”. She disabled this, wondering why it was practically hidden on the page, requiring one to scroll and really look for it.

Finally, I showed her how she had to go back to the main privacy settings page, then click on “Edit your settings” under Applications and Websites, and then click on “Edit settings” under Info Accessible Through Your Friends. Here, she made sure that “Places I check into” was not selected.

It took all these steps to properly opt out of Places. Not only was it confusing, but there was no guidance on how to navigate the myriad of settings required to opt-out. (I recognize there is a video and some information in the “learn more” links, but she didn’t want to learn more, just to opt-out.) Facebook provides no message when she first went into her privacy settings that there were new options that she should take a look at.

Overall, the process of completely opting-out of Places remains unintuitive and cumbersome. That’s poor privacy design, and Facebook should know better by now.

Note, too, that disabling check-ins by others does not affect previous check-ins. My wife’s name still appears in my original check-in to the local liquor store, as well as on the “friend’s activity” on the liquor store’s page, and, presumably, in Facebook’s database of who has been checked into that location. She must manually “remove tag” from each and every Places check-in that has occurred prior to her disabling the service….and no where was she proactively told she should do that. Over the days between launch and her eventual logging into Facebook to try to disable the service, I could have been checking my wife into dozens of places, each which would need to be located within her feed and removed manually.

Again, I think Facebook has done a better job designing Places compared to many of their recent product launches. But there is much to be desired for how they designed the privacy settings & user interface, and, in the end, it remains that users can be checked into places without their permission.


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