You may have heard in the news recently concerns about a new feature on Facebook called Facebook Places, which provides a map showing a user’s current location when they update their profile.

It allows users to show their locations in real time, using GPS tracking to show friends when they’ve arrived at a bar, restaurant or shop. Friends who are out together can also check each other in to locations. While it’s a fun way to keep tabs on your friends and loved ones, privacy experts say sharing your location can pose risks. 

Although similar location features are available on a raft of other popular social networking sites like Foursquare, Loopt, Gowalla, MyTown, and Google Latitude, Facebook has more than 500 million active users who each have an average of 130 “friends,” many of which are not real friends, and in some cases are actually non-friends, but accepted out of social obligation. 

As Facebook Places is a new feature, many users might not have considered or even be aware that anyone on their friend list could use the Facebook Places service to give away their whereabouts. Although you can delete your location tags, including those posted by friends, it may be spotted by others before you get a chance to do so. This could have unfortunate yet amusing consequences, like being busted for taking a sick day from work because your boss saw you tagged at the beach. But it could also be potentially dangerous, like if your location details got in the hands of the wrong person. 

 Police in the USA recently cracking a burglary ring in which at least one victim was targeted based on a Facebook update pronouncing the homeowner out of town. On an even more sinister note, the American Ministry of Defence has expressly warned personnel against using Facebook Places or any social networking application that publicises their exact whereabouts online whenever they log in. It circulated an advisory note describing the new Facebook Places feature as almost being a “one stop shop targeting pack” for anyone looking to locate forces personnel. 

Experts also warn against giving out location information about your regular daily schedule freely, especially in an ongoing manner, as it has potential to be used by predators and stalkers. Even if you stop posting your whereabouts, a savvy Internet user could probably find previous posts, such as if you play tennis at the same tennis courts every Monday night. “What you need to think about before getting into the habit of checking in is ‘do I really want the whole world knowing about this?’” Peter Eckersley, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently told the Chicago Tribune, “Facebook has privacy settings so you can only share with some people, but Facebook’s security has a history of being quite flimsy. Peoples’ Facebook accounts get hacked all the time.” 

So how can you control who sees where you are, and control who can post your whereabouts? The default setting on Facebook for both is anyone on your friend list, but you are able to adjust this to certain groups or switch it off altogether. If you’re concerned and would like to disable the new Facebook Places features, follow these instructions:

  1. Log in to your Facebook account and in the top right corner of the screen, click on ‘Account Settings’ and select ‘Privacy Settings’. Click on “Custom’, then click on ‘Customize Settings’.
  2. In the “Things I Share’ section, scroll down and choose your setting for ‘Places I Check Into’ by selecting ‘Custom’ and selecting ‘Only Me’. While here, you can also separately select whether you still want to enable people on your friend list to see if you have checked in to a particular location at the same time as them.
  3.  In the ‘Things Others Share’ section, choose your settings for ‘Friends Can Check Me Into Places’ to ‘Disable’ and click ‘OK’ to save.

Need more visual instructions? An English council put out an animated video explaining the security risks posed by Facebook Places that also includes a step-by-step guide to how to adjust your Facebook settings click here