Facebook recently told Fusion reporter Kashmir Hill that Facebook uses location data to recommend friends.
People freaked out. Facebook retracted the statement. Then, the social media giant said what, that's crazy, LOL, no. No, we didn't do that at all. Now, Facebook's communications team tells Hill the confusion arose "because there was a brief time when the social network used location for friend suggestions," which involved a small percentage of Facebook users and stopped last year.
"We ran a small test to use city-level location to better rank existing ["People You May Know] candidates and not all were aware that the test had ended," Facebook now says. "The test ran for four weeks at the end of 2015."
We don't know how the test went or why it wasn't rolled out more widely.
Hill asked if Facebook might be inferring location from sources other than smartphone GPS coordinates, another method that could explain the anecdotes Hill collected of users who believe they've been suggested friends based on location. Perhaps Facebook used IP addresses, which can be geomapped, or flagged the shared use of a wireless network.
"We are not using location data to suggest people you might know," said the spokesperson. "This includes IP and Wi-Fi access point location information."
We do know that Facebook is using smartphone location for other things, such as tracking which stores you go to and geotargeting you with ads, but the social network now says it's not using smartphone location to identify people you've been physically proximate to.
If Facebook were using smartphone location that way, it may well have violated its agreement with the Federal Trade Commission, which requires that the company get affirmative consent from its users to use their information in new ways and requires the company "to protect the privacy and confidentiality of consumers' information." Outing users' identities to strangers because they were near each other for an extended period of time might be frowned upon.