Instagram prototypes handing your location history to Facebook

This is sure to exacerbate fears that Facebook will further exploit Instagram now that its founders have resigned. Instagram has been spotted prototyping a new privacy setting that would allow it to share your location history with Facebook. That means your exact GPS coordinates collected by Instagram, even when you’re not using the app, would […]

This is sure to exacerbate fears that Facebook will further exploit Instagram now that its founders have resigned. Instagram has been spotted prototyping a new privacy setting that would allow it to share your location history with Facebook. That means your exact GPS coordinates collected by Instagram, even when you’re not using the app, would help Facebook to target you with ads and recommend you relevant content. Worryingly, the Location History sharing setting was defaulted to On in the prototype. The geo-tagged data would appear to users in their Facebook Profile’s Activity Log, which include creepy daily maps of the places you been.

This commingling of data could upset users who want to limit Facebook’s surveillance of their lives. With Facebook installing its former VP of News Feed and close friend of Mark Zuckerberg, Adam Mosseri, as the head of Instagram, some critics have worried that Facebook would attempt to squeeze more value out of Instagram. Tat includes driving referral traffic to the main app via spammy notifications, inserting additional ads, or pulling in more data. Facebook was sued for breaking its promise to European regulators that it would not commingle WhatsApp and Facebook data, leading to an $122 million fine.

 

A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch that “To confirm, we haven’t introduced updates to our location settings. As you know, we often work on ideas that may evolve over time or ultimately not be tested or released. Instagram does not currently store Location History; we’ll keep people updated with any changes to our location settings in the future.” That effectively confirms Location History sharing is something Instagram has prototyped, and that it’s considering launching but hasn’t yet.

The screenshots come courtesy of mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Her prior finds like prototypes of Instagram Video Calling and Music Stickers have drawn “no comments” from Instagram but then were officially launched in the following months. That lends credence to the idea that Instagram is serious about Location History.

Located in the Privacy and Security settings, the Location History option “Allows Facebook Products, including Instagram and Messenger, to build and use a history of precise locations received through Location Services on your device.”

A ‘Learn More’ button provides additional info (emphasis mine):

“Location History is a setting that allows Facebook to build a history of precise locations received through Location Services on your device. When Location History is on, Facebook will periodically add your current precise location to your Location History even if you leave the app. You can turn off Location History at any time in your Location Settings on the app. When Location History is turned off, Facebook will stop adding new information to your Location History which you can view in your Location Settings. Facebook may still receive your most recent precise location so that you can, for example, post content that’s tagged with your location. Location History helps you explore what’s around you, get more relevant ads, and helps improve Facebook. Location History must be turned on for some location feature to work on Facebook, including Find Wi-Fi and Nearby Friends.”

As part of a 2011 settlement with the FTC over privacy violations, Facebook agreed that “Material retroactive changes to the audience that can view the information users have previously shared on Facebook” must now be opt-in. But since Location History is never visible to other users and only deals with data Facebook sees, it’s exempt from that agreement and could be quietly added. Most users might never dig deep enough into their privacy settings to turn the opt-out feature off.

Delivering the exact history of where Instagram users went could assist Facebook with targeting them with local ads across its family of apps. If users are found to visit certain businesses, countries, neighborhoods, or schools, Facebook could use that data to infer which products they might want to buy and promote them. It could even show ads for restaurants or shops close to where users spend their days. Just yesterday, we reported that Facebook was testing a redesign of its Nearby Friends feature that replaces the list view of friends’ locations with a map. Pulling in Location History from Instagram could help keep that map up to date.

Sources tell TechCrunch that Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left the company following increasing tensions with Zuckerberg about dwindling autonomy of their app within the Facebook corporation. Systrom apparently clashed with Zuckerberg over how Instagram was supposed to contribute to Facebook success, especially as younger users began abandoning the older social network for the newer visual media app. Facebook is under pressure to keep up revenue growth despite it running out of News Feed ad inventory and users switching to Stories that advertisers are still acclimating to. Facebook is in heated competition with Google for last-mile local advertising and will take any advantage it can get.

Instagram has served as a life raft for Facebook’s brand this year amidst an onslaught of scandals including fake news, election interference, social media addiction, and most recently, a security breach that gave hackers the access tokens for 50 million users that could have let them take over their accounts. A survey of 1,153 US adults conducted in March 2018 found that 57 percent of them didn’t know Instagram was owned by Facebook. But if Facebook treats Instagram as a source of data and traffic it can strip mine, the negative perceptions associated with the parent could spill over onto the child.

Facebook tests Snap Map-style redesign of Nearby Friends

Helping friends meet up offline has been a massive missed opportunity for Facebook . Whether because the brand is too creepy or the politely opt-in 2015 rollout of its location sharing feature wasn’t creepy enough, Facebook Nearby Friends never quite took off. Only 103 of my 1120 friends in San Francisco have it turned on. […]

Helping friends meet up offline has been a massive missed opportunity for Facebook . Whether because the brand is too creepy or the politely opt-in 2015 rollout of its location sharing feature wasn’t creepy enough, Facebook Nearby Friends never quite took off. Only 103 of my 1120 friends in San Francisco have it turned on.

It’s not the only one struggling with “The quest to cure loneliness”. Foursquare Swarm, Glympse, Apple’s Find My Friends, and Google Maps’ real-time coordinate sharing option have all failed to become a ubiquitous standard.

The redesigned map homescreen of Facebook Nearby Friends

But last year, Snapchat launched a different take on the idea based on its biggest acquisition ever, French app Zenly. With Snap Map, it wasn’t just about the utility of seeing a list of friends’ locations like on Facebook, but also splayed them out across map that you could dive into to see their latest geo-tagged Stories. It was as much about fun and content as it was about actually hanging out with people in person.

Now Facebook is testing a significant redesign of Nearby Friends that looks a lot more like Snap Map. It replaces the list view of the neighborhoods and cities friends are in with a map that groups friends together by city. A “view list” button opens up the former homescreen, though in both views you still can only see a friend’s approximate location in a neighborhood or city, not their exact coordinates. Facebook confirms to TechCrunch that “We’re testing a new design for Nearby Friends, a tool people have used for the past four years to meet with their friends in person. People have complete control over whether to use Nearby Friends or not. They can turn it on in the Nearby Friends bookmark.”

That statement both subtly promotes Facebook’s opt-in privacy setting for Nearby Friends while urging people to actually go back and activate it. The screenshot was generated from the code of Facebook’s Android app by mobile researcher and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Interestingly, after TechCrunch’s inquiry, Wong tells me Facebook appears to have deactivated server-side the ability to access the map feature.

The reason this matters is that Facebook is desperate for engagement, especially amongst younger users who are slipping away from it to Snapchat and Instagram. If revamped with this map and other improvements, Nearby Friends could become a more popular utility that keeps people opening Facebook. Getting more people to share their real-time location could open new opportunities for local ad targeting. And Facebook could benefit from showing it unlocks meaningful offline connection given its recent brand troubles following election interference and calls that it’s the opposite of “time well spent”.

The existing design of Facebook Nearby Friends

Snap Map was smart, but it’s sadly buried behind an awkward pinch gesture from Snapchat’s homescreen, or inside the search bar where some users wouldn’t expect it. Internal Snapchat usage data scored by Taylor Lorenz for The Daily Beast revealed that Snap Map had sunk from a high of 35 million daily unique viewers after its June 2017 launch to just 19 million by that September — merely 11 percent of Snapchat’s users at the time. Users never seemed to cease on it as a method of browsing Snapchat’s geo-tagged content.

Unfortunately, none of these location apps have figured out that meeting up isn’t all about location. It’s about availability. It doesn’t matter if I see my best friend is at a coffee shop right away if they’re not actually available to hang out. They could be on date, having a business meeting, or trying to get some work done. If I drop in just because I see they’re close by, it could be awkward. You’d have to first message them, but you can come off seeming desperate if they can’t or don’t want to meet up with you.

Location apps need an availability indicator similar to the green “online” dot used by many chat apps. You could toggle that on if you wanted to show you’re interested in some spontaneous friend time.

Facebook’s actually spent the last year trying to build this into Messenger in the form of “Your Emoji” status. It lets you pick an emoji like a martini, fork and knife, or barbell that’s temporarily overlaid on your profile pic thumbnail to let people know you’re down for drinking, getting dinner, or working out. The feature is yet to be widely tested, indicating that Facebook hasn’t quite cracked the nut of encouraging online meetups.

Ideally, Facebook would combine Nearby Friends and Your Emoji to help users share both approximately where they are and whether they want to hang out. The next step would be making it easy to watch a friend’s geo-tagged Facebook Story from wherever they are. And then, Facebook could further copy Snap Map by making public Stories and other location-based content accessible from the map so you could browse it for fun instead of the News Feed or Stories tray.

Still, making Nearby Friends work could require Facebook to rethink the privacy element. The friend graph has bloated to include family, co-workers, bosses, and distant acquaintances that users might not want to share their real-time location with. Finding a better way to let you share where you are with just your closest friends could make more people comfortable with the feature.

Facebook needs to rethink its entire product stack to embrace the high-definition cameras, big phone screens, and fast network connections that make it easier to convey information through imagery than text. Visual communication is the future and that goes far beyond Stories.