Facebook’s announces creepy new “Movement Maps” to give selected partners real-time snapshots of users’ movements

Given Facebook’s history with data privacy, is sharing real-time snapshots of user location data with third-parties a good idea?

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Today Facebook announced “Movement Maps” – a creepy real-time mapping service that gives selected third-parties access to snapshots of user’s mobility patterns. Facebook is positioning these Maps as a tool that will help researchers and health organizations gain real-time insights on how diseases spread.

However, given Facebook’s history when it comes to handling user data, the launch of these “Movement Maps” raises serious privacy and security concerns.

Here’s how Facebook described “Movement Maps” on the Facebook Newsroom blog:

“Our movement maps aggregate information from people who are using Facebook on their mobile phones with location services enabled, providing real-time snapshots into mobility patterns. Partner organizations can combine this data with information on specific cases of diseases to glean insights about where the next case of cholera or drug-resistant malaria is likely to occur.”

The current list of initial partners that have access to the data from these “Movement Maps” are:

  1. Direct Relief
  2. FHI360
  3. Harvard School of Public Health
  4. The Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation at the University of Washington
  5. International Medical Corps
  6. The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
  7. Malaria Atlas Project
  8. The MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London
  9. Northeastern University
  10. Sabin Vaccine Institute
  11. UNICEF
  12. Wadhwani AI
  13. The World Bank
  14. The World Economic Forum

Facebook describes these organizations as “initial partners” so it’s likely that more organizations will be given access to the data from “Movement Maps” in the future.

Facebook says that the improved insights from “Movement Maps” will allow health systems to better prepare for outbreaks and estimate how quickly diseases might spread. However, it doesn’t address any of the privacy or security concerns that sharing these real-time aggregate snapshots of user’s movements with third-parties creates.

Data from Pew Research has shown that 74% of US adults are unaware that Facebook compiles their traits and interests for advertisers and 51% said they were not comfortable with Facebook maintaining this kind of list when they became aware of it.

Since Facebook is automatically aggregating data from users that have location services enabled to create these “Movement Maps” and is not asking for explicit permission from users when collecting this data, it’s likely that a similar percentage of users will also be unaware that their location data is being used in this way.

The percentage of users that are not comfortable with this data collection is likely to be significantly higher than 51% considering it’s much more invasive than compiling a list of interests and involves sharing aggregated real-time snapshots of their movements with third-parties.

Another concern is that Facebook doesn’t provide any information on how third-parties will ensure the data from these “Movement Maps” is protected and not shared with other parties.

For example, Unicef and The World Bank both have open data projects which make large sets of data freely available. Facebook doesn’t say whether “Movement Maps” data will be included in these open data projects or other similar data sharing projects run by the other organizations on the list of initial partners.

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