Agencies may not like Facebook’s new ‘like’ feature
Changes to social networking site pose questions for agencies, says one privacy expert
Federal agencies could run into privacy problems with the latest social networking innovations unveiled by Facebook.
The new Facebook technology, called “social plugins,”
is designed to enable users to click on a “like” button when visiting
content on other Web sites and have their Facebook profiles
automatically updated with that content. That personal information is
then available to other people or organizations that a Facebook member
connects with — including federal agencies.
Although it’s still not clear how social plugins would
work for federal agencies — the feature is currently available only on
75 private-sector sites — the new application could be a problem for
federal agencies because Facebook has also dropped its “fan”
functionality. In the past, citizens could sign up to become fans of an
agency, which meant they would receive status updates from the
organization without sharing their full user profile.
To get those updates under the new scenario, Facebook
users would have to click the “like” button on that organization’s
page. In the default privacy setting, a user’s profile — including
Facebook pages and Web sites that a user “likes” — becomes available to
Those innovations could make it more difficult for agencies
to limit the information they collect about individuals when they
interact with them through the popular social networking site, said Ari
Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer at the Center for
Democracy and Technology.
“I’ve had government agencies tell me they like fan
pages because it allows them to interact with people without getting a
lot of information on those people,” Schwartz said. “Now they have to
get a lot of information on those people to use Facebook, and they
don’t want it” because agencies have to worry about complying with
federal privacy requirements when they receive such personal
Facebook users can change the privacy setting to shield
their personal information, but many people might not be aware of the
problem, Schwartz said. That means agencies might need to take steps to
limit the amount of information they can see.
Lawmakers are also concerned about the privacy implications.
Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Al Franken (D-Minn.) wrote a letter to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg on April 27 expressing their concerns.
In his response to the senators, Zuckerberg wrote that in
addition to being designed to enhance personalization and social
activity on the Web, the new tools would continue to give users
unprecedented control over their personal information and its
Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s manager of public policy
communications, said in a statement: "We appreciate the concerns raised
by Schumer and expect that further dialogue with interested members of
Congress about the user controls that accompany the tools announced by
Facebook last week will alleviate any concerns they may have."
Schwartz said he thinks some government agencies will
figure out a way to put the new functionality to good use, but the
changes will limit agencies' ability to control the information they
receive about individuals. Specifically, he said the program makes it
even harder for agencies to use Web 2.0 tools.
“I think any agency that is already having problems using
social networks in order to engage people [is] going to have more
problems now,” Schwartz said. “That’s not saying this is something that
they shouldn’t engage in. That’s not saying this is a bad thing. I
think the problem is in moving people from this world of friends to a
world that’s much more open than that.”
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.