Facebook has denied using location data to suggest potential friends amid questions about the unsettling accuracy with which it puts forward “people you may know.”
The feature has been known to suggest users who have no or few mutual friends on the network – and, reportedly, nothing in common beyond having shared the same physical space – prompting concerns about how it works.
These were resurrected on Tuesday when Fusion reported that Facebook was drawing from the location of users’ smartphones to inform its suggestions – a “privacy disaster,” it said.
It quoted a spokesperson as saying that location information was “only one of the factors” Facebook used to determine people who may know each other.
“Seriously, I’ve had enough reporters ask me, freaked out, why Facebook is recommending their protected sources,” tweeted Violet Blue, a reporter on cybercrime, on Tuesday. “Suck it up & stop using it.”
But Fusion then published an updated statement from Facebook, which said it did not use location data – though it had briefly in the past.
Fusion’s Kasmir Hill wrote that she had “reportorial whiplash”. “I’ve never had a spokesperson confirm and then retract a story so quickly.”
The network “ran a small test” for four weeks at the end of 2015, in which it used users’ cities to rank existing suggested friends, the spokesperson said. Not all staff were aware that the test had ended.
On Wednesday a Facebook spokesman confirmed to the Guardian that it was not using location data, with the same statement as supplied to Fusion.
“We may show you people based on mutual friends, work and education information, networks you are part of, contacts you’ve imported and other factors,” he said. In its help section, Facebook says its suggestions are based on “mutual friends, work and education information, networks you’re part of, contacts you’ve imported and many other factors”.
The opacity of these “other factors” aside, Facebook’s sometimes disconcerting suggestions – perhaps more accurately titled “people you most definitely know, but have no intention of adding” – have been remarked upon since it introduced the feature in 2008.