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There are lots of ways to find friends on Facebook, but the People You May Know tool is one of the most common. Whether you’re on your computer or your phone, People You May Know is never far away. By analyzing your social network as well as a few pieces of additional information, the feature always has a few suggestions.
But lately, there have been some rather disturbing reports of Facebook using sensitive information to come up with these suggestions. Here, we’ll take a look at some of those reports and show you what you can to do keep Facebook from making these creepy recommendations.
What Has Facebook Been Doing?
The People You May Know tool is actually a complicated algorithm that draws heavily on the field of network science. This uses a lot of complicated statistics to draw conclusions about specific networks — including your real-life and digital social networks.
By looking at the contacts on your phone or computer (if you’ve given permission), where you grew up and went to school, where you work, and other information that you give Facebook when you sign up, it can make some educated guesses as to the people you might know.
All of this is fairly straightforward, and to be expected. It’s in Facebook’s best interest to keep you connected to people you know so you keep using the site and they can keep selling your data. And looking at the people you’ve “friended”, their contacts, and any possible relations you might have elsewhere is a good way to recommend people you might want to connect with.
But lately, some pretty weird stuff has been coming out about the People You May Know feature. For example, in 2015, Vice looked into why some people’s online dating matches were showing up in the People You May Know section of Facebook. Was Facebook was pulling data from other apps to suggest connections (the company denied that this was the case)?
Something that’s been hitting the news more recently is that people are seeing not only their own health professionals, including psychotherapists, suggested as friends, but also other patients of those professionals, which could constitute a major violation of privacy and — at least in some cases — an illegal HIPAA violation.
It could be the case that this information is being pulled from a psychotherapist’s contacts list. If you’ve given Facebook permission to access your contacts once, it will do so whenever you add a new contact, to see if they’re on Facebook. If you don’t believe it — or you just want to see which contacts have been uploaded from your various sources — head to your Manage invites and imported contacts page. It’s pretty unnerving.
However, it might not just be your contacts list that Facebook is using to suggest friends. In a particularly damning statement, a Facebook spokesperson stated that location data was one of the pieces of information used to inform the People You May Know tool. Very shortly after, however, the statement (made on June 24 and June 27, 2016) was retracted.
This explained why a number of people saw suggestions in People You May Know with whom they shared no contacts, and certainly hadn’t exchanged phone numbers. One parent at a gathering for suicidal teens reported that another parent at the meeting was suggested. Another person said that the receptionist at her therapist’s practice came up. But it’s not just lately that issues like this have arisen.
Back in 2014, journalist Tim Burrowes attended a lecture, and saw a number of people that he talked to there on his People You May Know list the following morning. He also noticed that Facebook had access to his location at all times. Facebook denied that location was used for People You May Know.
Should You Be Worried?
Facebook is supremely talented at data mining and network science. So when they say that they’re not using location data, and they’re just looking at very complicated equations that predict who you might know, they very well may be telling the truth. But if some of the stories that we’ve heard about weird People You May Know Suggestions are true — and we have little reason to believe they’re not — it might be time to start worrying a bit more about our privacy. In light of the possibility that your smartphone could be listening to your conversations, additional Facebook privacy concerns may well make you think twice about using the service.
Of course, the best thing you can do to keep Facebook from using your location to suggest friends is by disallowing it access to your location, or at least only giving it access when you’re using the app. You may also want to check your phone’s security settings to check what contacts-related permissions are in place. Don’t forget to check Messenger permissions, too!
Is Facebook Becoming a Privacy Nightmare?
Maybe it’s more apt to ask if it already is a privacy nightmare. It’s getting to the point where allowing Facebook access to anything — or vice versa — is starting to look like a bad idea. And while we don’t have any proof that the app is using your location to suggest friends, which would certainly be a potential privacy violation, there’s some evidence to support the idea that it at least influences Facebook’s recommendations.
But, of course, the utility that we get from Facebook will almost always outweigh the potential privacy sacrifices we give up. It seems likely that the social network could continue to erode our privacy protections for a long time before there was too big a public outcry for it to be worth it.
Have you seen strange suggestions from People You May Know? Do you think it might have been from location data? Share your thoughts and experiences below!