Mobile Apps

Facebook discusses new location-privacy settings in Apple's iOS 8 (Q&A)

Apple's new mobile OS gives you more control over when an app can access your device's location. Facebook says it wants to make sure users understand what its apps are asking for and why.

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Facebook says it wants to be more transparent about how it handles user's privacy. JeremyShaferOrigami/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Facebook wants to know where you are, but it promises it's for a good reason.

The company has built some refinements into the version of its app designed to run on iOS 8, Apple's just-released update to its operating system for iPhones and iPads. Some new features in the Facebook app will likely be celebrated by hard-core users of the social network, such as the ability to tag friends when sharing photos from Apple's photos app, or to include feelings in a post.

But the Facebook app will also automatically shift some users to an iOS privacy setting that gives an app access to a mobile device's location at all times -- whether the device's owner is using the app at that moment or not. That's despite the fact that with iOS 8, Apple has introduced a new setting that lets people choose not to share location info with an app when they don't have the app open.

Why is Facebook doing this?

If customers in the past allowed the social network's app to access their location information, then the updated app will tell iOS 8 to set privacy to always share the info. Facebook says it's doing this to support its Nearby Friends feature, which lets users see who's around them. If Facebook had chosen the new, more stringent iOS privacy setting, Nearby Friends wouldn't work.

Of course, not all customers may be sympathetic. And Facebook has reason to believe this: Around the beginning of August, the company began forcing mobile users to download and use its Messenger app to communicate with each other, rather than using its primary app. But when Messenger first launched on Android, the app asked for a variety of permissions that made some users uncomfortable.

This time, Facebook says it wants to make sure users understand what its apps are asking for.

Yul Kwon, manager of Facebook's privacy program, discussed how the new Facebook app works with iOS 8. The following is an edited Q&A.

Q: What does this change -- using the Facebook app on iOS 8 and all these permissions changes -- mean for users?
Kwon: The reality is that nothing's really changing. If you turned on location services before, you'll have the "always" permission, but [that] does not mean we're collecting information in the background. We will not do that unless you opted in to Nearby Friends. And if you opted in, you're getting a [setting] within the app to control this.

But what about people who didn't opt in to Nearby Friends?
Kwon: The dilemma we're facing [has arisen] because Apple's [code] doesn't let us selectively put people into one category or the other. If we put everyone into "while using the app," then for the millions of people who have opted into Nearby Friends the app would break, and that's not a good solution.

Are you collecting information about users that they aren't entirely aware of, or in ways they don't already know about?
Kwon: Just because a user has "always" permission on the device level, it does not mean that we are collecting their location information in the background. We made a very conscious decision a while ago that we're not going to rely just on the device-level permission to allow us to collect location information in the background.

And that's just because we thought in iOS 7 and before, this binary toggle for location (full access or no access) was a very broad kind of control; it was all or nothing. And for stuff like background location, it's pretty sensitive stuff. For us, even though we've always had permission, we've never collected location information in the background and we're always intentional about the fact that if we were ever going to do that it would only happen if we introduced a background location feature and we gave you additional control within the app that lets you control if we collect your information in the background.

So how did you handle that with Nearby Friends?
Kwon: What we did was make the feature completely optional, and we completely explained how this stuff works. And for people who opted in to it, we gave them a new location setting within the app which lets them control if we get their location setting in the background. We felt like this was the right solution, because we didn't want to rely on just the device-level permission, we felt like people didn't fully understand that, and the other benefit of creating an in-app control is that it applies to both iOS and Android, so you have a consistent experience.

What do you think of the concerns people have voiced recently about Facebook and the permissions you ask for in your mobile apps?
Kwon: We feel like we could do a better job communicating this stuff. At the end of the day, a lot of memes going around have been based on misinformation, and they tend to become very viral. From our perspective, we want to communicate as much as we can, and part of what we're trying to do right now is to just have people understand that we have been as thoughtful as we can. We're not trying to trick users at all; we want them to be as fully cognizant of the options they have and make the right choices for themselves.