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 that organization.

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 information.

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 dissemination.

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.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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