Social media's dark side: The privacy dilemma

A hot topic in social media circles is privacy protection, both for members of the public and federal employees and officials

If your military command held a discussion on homosexuality on its Facebook page, would you publicly air your views? If a federal health agency offered assistance in identifying and treating alcoholism to all who respond on Twitter, would you tweet a response? Would you sign your name to a GovLoop open discussion sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service on tips for identifying tax delinquents?

Those hypothetical situations all point to a common concern that is increasingly becoming a hot topic in social media circles: protection of privacy, both for members of the public and federal employees and officials.

Federal agencies have made strong inroads in using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and GovLoop, in addition to similar tools such as wikis and blogs. Twenty-two of 24 major federal agencies are applying social networking tools to engage the public, industry and employees, the Government Accountability Office reported July 22. A survey of 321 federal employees by Market Connections released July 27 found that 60 percent of the workers were using social media at work or home.

Yet the significant privacy concerns related to social media are just now starting to emerge. A coalition of consumer privacy groups has written to Congress asking for stronger protections. Federal privacy policies for social media are still in the works, and privacy concerns have yet to be fully examined and addressed, GAO said in its July 22 report.

“We have to make sure that agencies limit their collection and use of personally identifiable information,” said Gregory Wilshusen, director of information security issues at GAO.

The problems are being exacerbated because commercial entities with mixed privacy records run many social networks. Facebook caused a stir recently when it unilaterally changed privacy settings without notifying members. Members, once informed, could choose to opt out. Government Web sites should always carry a disclaimer when they link to a nongovernment site such as Facebook because the privacy rules are looser at nongovernment sites, said John Simpson, an advocate at Consumer Watchdog.

However, many government agencies are not posting those disclaimers. Even the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held a hearing on social media July 22, linked its hearing video directly to YouTube without a disclaimer, though YouTube has cookies that track consumer use of the site, Simpson said.

“Congress is just starting to become aware of the situation,” Simpson said. Two social network privacy bills are pending.

Aside from consumers, however, there are undercurrents of concern about federal employee privacy on social networks. One of the General Services Administration’s unions recently halted collective bargaining because of a proposed new social media policy that the union said would create censorship and compromise privacy. The GSA policy, in part, asked employees to comport themselves like employees on social media, with no expectation of privacy. “This is like Russia,” said Charles Paidock, a union spokesman. A GSA official said talks will resume shortly, and the agency is hopeful the two sides will reach a resolution.

Other scenarios are troubling, too. If a federal employee’s supervisor notices photos on Facebook of the worker at a Gay Pride parade or notes that the worker’s friends are commenting from drug abuse rehabilitation centers, there is a risk of personal information leaking out that the employee might prefer to keep hidden.

“There is personal information, perhaps sensitive information, and other government employees may have access to it,” Wilshusen said. He said federal employees should be trained to safeguard against “a blending of personal and professional roles” that sometimes occurs on social media sites.

Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, said the scenarios demonstrate that all social media carries privacy risks, just as e-mail, video and many other technologies do.

“I’m sure you can find a downside,” Ressler said. “But the solution is not to avoid being on Facebook.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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