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Facebook broadcasts your location in meat space

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Facebook piled into the mobile stalking space yesterday, with its Places service which enables users to reveal where they are in meat space with a tap of a finger.

The service, which is initially rolling out on iPhones in the US, adds a button to the Facebook mobile application allowing a user to "check in" to his current location. This automatically updates the user's status to reflect where he is, and allows friends and anyone with a less healthy interest to seek the user out and interact in a more physical manner.

Stalkers will need to be Facebook "friends" of course, but that's a given these days. Updates only happen when you press the "check in" button, or when someone else decides to report your location. You can check in with any of your friends if you see them somewhere (or would like people to think you've seen them somewhere), unless they've disallowed this in their security settings.

Such a paranoid friend might also have switched off the "People Here Now" feature, which allows one to see any Facebook users in the same location, even if they aren't friends yet.

Facebook reckons this means there are no privacy issues involved, since you can see who's nearby just as well as they can see you. Your eyes won't, however, display the name, age, marital status of those around you, as a view of someone's Facebook profile might.

But predictably, in common with just about everything Facebook does, the launch has prompted concerns over privacy. The Northern Californian ACLU said that opting out of being tagged was too difficult.

"Places allows your friends to tag you when they check in somewhere, and Facebook makes it very easy to say 'yes' to allowing your friends to check in for you. But when it comes to opting out of that feature, you are only given a 'not now' option (aka ask me again later)," it said.

Facebook Places is closely comparable to Foursquare and various other "check-in" services, which aren't particularly popular* but receive great attention from the web crowd who believe such location-based services are their next boom.

The early entry of a social networking behemoth like Facebook might put paid to that. Foursquare appeared at the launch to annouunce it would be integrating with the Facebook Places API.

Right now that's all there is - Facebook Places won't reward those who visit the same place most often, as FourSquare awards mayoral status to frequent visitors. Facebook won't even be tying targeted advertising to the feature, at least not immediately.

The idea, for the moment, is just to get people to spend more time looking at Facebook, while the company slurps up all the data it can. Monetising it will come later.

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*In July Foursquare, so far the dominant service, announced it had 2 million users worldwide. Facebook has well over 500 million.

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