On Wednesday, Facebook introduced a new privacy setting for Android users. Previously, if you had Location History turned on, the app could track you in the background. In other words, even if you didn’t have the app open, it knew where you were. Now, you can stop it from doing so. And you should.
The change applies to Android only, because iOS users already had that granularity, thanks to default iOS location permissions that let you specify whether you want an app to track your location always, only when you’re using it, or never. Android’s location permission is binary; an app either can or can’t access it. Facebook would tap into that data to feed features like Nearby Friends, which is pretty self-explanatory, and presumably its formidable advertising apparatus as well.
“If you enabled this setting, two things happened: You would share your location when you weren’t using the app and you would allow Facebook to store a history of your precise locations,” Facebook engineering director Paul McDonald wrote in a post announcing the change. Facebook says it’s making the change to improve on Android’s “all or nothing” location rubric.
To limit Facebook’s awareness of your whereabouts, tap on the hamburger icon in the upper-right corner, then Settings & Privacy > Settings > Location > Location Settings. From there, you should see a new option called Background Location, which you can toggle off. (If you already had Location History turned off, nothing changes.) Facebook will also be inserting a notice into your News Feed to alert you to the change and offering a link to manage settings. The update is still rolling out, so you may not see the notice or the new settings quite yet.
“We made the update because over time we heard feedback from people using Facebook on an Android device that they wanted easy-to-understand incremental control in addition to the device ‘on’ ‘off’ options,” Facebook spokesperson Rochelle Nadhiri said in an email.
Facebook has faced increasing scrutiny over its data collection policies ever since last year’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. Location, too, has become a lightning rod for privacy advocates, in light of a series of ongoing location-sharing scandals. Just six months ago, Google got hit for opaque location permission settings, precisely the kind of public blow-up that Facebook may want to avoid, especially as it faces a potential record fine from the Federal Trade Commission.
“Location is one of the most sensitive data sets there is, and Facebook is one of the most widely used platforms, so this is an important change,” says Michelle Richardson, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Freedom, Security, and Technology Project. Richardson adds, though, that without the backstop of a federal law, users are still at the mercy of tech companies when it comes to protecting their data.
“This is the challenge of having a system that’s based on privacy self-management,” Richardson says. “There are just too many apps, devices, and services that we all touch every day. There’s just no meaningful way for people to manage all of these different apps, all these decisions they have to make, for many years into the future.”
For now, Android users at least have a little bit more control over when Facebook tracks them. That may not make up for all the other ways Facebook has neglected privacy over the years, but it’s something.