- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 25, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - Services based on your location, such as Foursquare, are popular in the tech-centric bubbles of Silicon Valley and New York City. But for many people, these services remain odd _ and potentially creepy _ tools on your smart phone to let friends or even strangers know you just showed up to a restaurant, gym or the corner deli.

According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey this spring, only 5 percent of adult Internet users in the U.S. have used such a service. With the entry of Facebook Places to the mix, though, this number is likely to grow. For now, here is a rundown for the other 95 percent on what Facebook Places means and how to protect your privacy.

1. Checking in.

Most location services won’t broadcast your whereabouts without your consent. If you want to tell people where you are, you need a smart phone with GPS or other geolocating capabilities. You begin by installing a free application for one of these services. You then “check in” to a place by choosing it from a list of nearby venues on your screen. You can also add venues on your own. If you don’t check in, Facebook won’t magically “know” you’re there.

2. What’s the point?

Many people already tell Facebook friends where they are. Granted, “at the gym” isn’t the most insightful status update, but people do it nonetheless. The Places feature builds on this so you can, temporarily, link yourself to a specific place, be it a gym or a burger joint.

If you want, you can let other people who have also checked in _ friends or even strangers _ see that you are there. It’s a way to connect your online social network with your offline world. On Foursquare, there’s a gaming element, too. Whoever has checked in to a place the most often becomes its virtual “mayor.” Users also can earn Scouts-inspired “badges” for checking into specific places _ such as “Gym Rat” for going to the gym 10 times in 30 days. Pointless, scary or genius? You decide.

3. The concerns

The more information you broadcast about yourself online, the more that marketers, strangers, future or current employers and anyone else will know about you. Are you OK with leaving an ever-expanding digital trail behind? Do you want ads to target you based on demographic information you’ve scattered about? You can walk into a store and then walk out without the owner knowing who you are, but do you know what happens when you also check in, digitally? And should other people be able to share your location with the world?

4. Friends or “friends”?

Under Facebook’s default settings, everyone you list as a “friend” will be able to see where you’ve checked in. But are they really your friends?

Facebook’s settings allow you to exclude specific people from seeing your check-ins, or you could authorize only a select few. To do this, go to “Account” on the top right corner of the page. Then choose “Privacy Settings” and click “Customize settings.” Look for a pull-down menu next to “Places I check in to.” Click on it, and select “Custom.”

To authorize people, look for “These people,” select “Specific People…” and type their names into the box underneath. To exclude just a few friends _ your boss, maybe, or that nosy co-worker you reluctantly “friended” _ type their names into the “Hide this from” box.

Take this time to go over your full list of friends, with pruning shears if need be. Does Uncle Ned or the spouse of a friend of a friend you met at a wedding last year really need to be there?

5. Checking in friends.

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