Open Government is Paved with Social Networking

IT Security Buyer's Guide
The Road to Open Government is Paved with Twitter, Facebook and other Social Networking Sites

By Teri Robinson

Social networking just might help government become more open and accessible to the public. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and other social networking media offer ways for citizens to access government and government to disseminate information and stay connected to its constituency. But as social networking becomes a mainstay for users inside government, it gives rise to a variety of security concerns.

Agencies can’t afford to become more vulnerable to security breaches and inappropriate activity but they also can’t afford to eliminate such a rich tool for communication and interaction with citizens.

The Obama Administration may have pledged greater transparency and aimed the Open Government Initiative at that goal, but according to an Open Government Research Report conducted by Harris Interactive for RightNow, 57 percent of respondents said they didn’t believe that government is putting a serious effort into becoming more open. In fact, most felt that government falls far short of its mission to be more transparent – a whopping 96 percent said that government could improve its interaction with the public. And they identified web sites, mobile devices and social networking sites as the tools government could use to better reach citizens. In fact, a little more than half suggested that agencies build online forums while 71 percent noted that search capabilities on existing websites should be ramped up.

And 34 percent were in favor of government increasing its use of Facebook, Twitter and the like. Social networking sites offer agencies a free way to reach large populations of citizens, promote their services and conduct their business. Those sites help government prepare the public and executive COOP in times of disaster-natural and manmade. They, like mobile technology and agency Web sites, allow citizens to interact with government whenever and wherever they want to. In addition, with proper use, agencies should see an uptick in productivity-they can answer more questions and deal with more issues more quickly than through traditional means.

What’s more, onvestigative arms of some agencies like the Justice Department and the IRS use Facebook, MySpace and other sites to help uncover and track and investigate persons of interest, taxpayers and criminals.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation along with the University of California, Berkeley’s Samuelson Clinic filed a lawsuit late last year against the Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Department of Justice, and Department of Treasury in an attempt to uncover just how they use social networking sites to collect information and conduct surveillance.

The EFF recently obtained documents from the IRS and Justice that confirm the agencies are using social networking sites for investigative purposes.

Make it a Policy. Include social networking in any security policy, clearly outlining guidelines for using the media at work and in the context of doing business. EFF’s investigation found that the IRS has strict rules for social networking use. For instance, agents cannot use deception or set up false accounts on social networking sites in an attempt to collect data on taxpayers.

Suffer the consequences. It’s not good enough to simply have a policy. Agencies must make clear the consequences for inappropriate use of social networking sites and enforce them.

Training counts. Agencies should detail how employees can best use tools like Facebook and Twitter to do their jobs. A Justice Department presentation includes instructions on “Obtaining and Using Evidence from Social Networking Sites”. In addition agencies must school employees on the parameters for social networking use and warn them to watch what they say or post. A firefighter was recently dismissed after posting a video on Facebook. And employees at a California hospital found themselves pinkslipped after discussing patients on the popular social media site. The IRS includes specific guidelines for social network use as part of its formal training.