Facebook may (or may not) suggest friends based on your location

friends using iphone smartphones mobile facebook app

Apparently, the fastest way to get two different answers to the same questions is to ask a Facebook spokesperson. 

That question: Does Facebook track user location to make friend suggestions. 

Luckily, it's not a very important question, and one answer doesn't represent a huge privacy violation of Facebook's more than one billion users. Oh wait, it is, and it does. So what is really happening? In IT Blogwatch, we search for the location of the answer. 

What's really going on? Kashmir Hill has the inside scoop:

On Friday, and again on Monday, Facebook told me that it uses smartphone location data to recommend new friends to...users. After I reported this, lots of people said that this explained why certain people had popped up in their “People You May Know” box on Facebook.
But...Monday night...Facebook reversed course. A spokesperson told me that the company had dug into the matter...and determined that “we’re not using location data, such as device location and location information you add to your profile, to suggest people you may know.”
I have reportorial whiplash. I’ve never had a spokesperson confirm and then retract a story so quickly.

Why the back and forth? Apparently, location information was kinda sorta used previously. Debbie Encalada explains a bit more:

That's not to say Facebook hasn't used location data to suggest friends in the past...last year...Facebook tested using location to "better rank" People You May Know suggestions.
"We ran a small test to use city-level location to better rank existing ["People You May Know"] candidates...not all were aware that the test had ended...The test ran for four weeks at the end of 2015."

Well, that certainly clears things up. But just for kicks, if Facebook did make suggestions based on location, Alexandra Burlacu theorized what that could look like:

Simply put, if...you were in the same location as another Facebook user, even if you don't really know them, you might...see...them as a suggested friend on the social network. You could be going to an AA meeting without exchanging names or phone numbers with anyone, and...get home to see Facebook suggesting you befriend the guy sitting next to you.
You could be getting a friend suggestion to add the person that creeped you out at a bar last night. Or worse, they could be getting a suggestion to add you, learning your name, seeing your public profile photos...It's creepy.

But we don't have to worry about that, since Facebook said it doesn't track location for making friend suggestions. But if you're still nervous, Ketan Pratap shares how to turn it off, and some pertinent historical context:

Currently, the best way to disable the feature is to decline location access to the Facebook app.
Notably...the standalone Messenger app has...previously reported to be doing the same. Last year, a report found that Facebook's Messenger app shared user's exact location with each message...The student who reported the issue to Facebook later lost his internship at Facebook after revealing [the] privacy flaw.
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