Facebook reveals how its iOS apps track user location

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Facebook may be trying to get on top of potential negative publicity.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Facebook has clarified how its apps collect and uses location data, ahead of the release of iOS 13.

While this data gathering is nothing new, iOS 13 will make it more obvious to users by calling out apps which behave in this way. It therefore looks like Facebook is trying to get out ahead of any potential negative publicity.

In a blog post, Facebook says that it collects location data via, “things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection.”

“If you are using iOS 13, you will begin to receive notifications about when an app is using your precise location in the background and how many times an app has accessed that information,” Facebook notes. “The notification will also include a map of the location data an app has received and an explanation why the app uses that type of location information.”

iOS 13 features a popup which lets users know how often each app uses background location data. Apple introduced the feature at WWDC when it first showcased iOS 13 in action.

Location-tracking doesn’t have to be viewed as something sinister. It can make certain apps, such as maps, more functional. In Facebook’s case, it’s used for (arguably) useful purposes such as letting your friends and family know where you’ve been. However, it’s also used to give Facebook another way to serve up ads.

Users can stop Facebook’s mobile app tracking them. You can do this by opening Settings > Account Settings > Location. Next, switch the toggle to “off.” You can also disable location history in the same way. However, there are still ways that Facebook can track internet usage via the web app.

Facebook and Apple: Differences on privacy

Apple and Facebook have a complex history. Apple was one of the big early revenue streams for the social media giant. Back when it was still called Thefacebook, Apple sponsored a group on the site. Apple agreed to pay $1 per month for every user who joined. This carried a monthly minimum of $50,000. It gave Facebook its first regular paycheck.

Today, the two companies are more typically at odds over privacy issues. Last year, Tim Cook slammed Facebook’s lax approach to privacy. Cook was asked what he would do if he was in the same situation as Mark Zuckerberg during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cook responded, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Facebook has recently had a few noteworthy privacy issues. The Federal Trade Commission hit Facebook with a massive $5 billion fine due to the social network’s lax privacy policies. Then, earlier this month, a report revealed that a Facebook server containing hundreds of millions of users’ phone numbers was left exposed to potential attackers.

With this kind of negative press, it’s no wonder that Facebook would want to try and defuse concerns about location tracking. Whether its blog post will actually do that remains to be seen. At the very least, this gives Facebook first stab at controlling the narrative. That’s presumably better than waiting for a journalist to publish the story about how regular Facebook’s app tracks customers.