A small step toward safeguarding Facebook privacy

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun on April 20, 2013.

Millions of people put their lives on Facebook, but thanks to the site’s convoluted and ever-changing privacy policies, they often have little idea who else can see the information they provide or what the company itself is doing with all the personal data it collects. For that reason, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler’s effort as president of the National Association of Attorneys General to partner with Facebook on a public information campaign is welcome — so long as it doesn’t give the public the impression that the problem of Facebook privacy has been solved.

On Facebook, people publish information about what they like, where they live, where they work, what their relationships are and how to contact them. People also frequently exchange personal and private messages.

Online predators, thieves and frauds have a keen interest in collecting as much personal data as they can to harm, rob or impersonate individuals. Employers and admissions officers actively seek out information that many applicants likely never thought would be public. And Facebook itself makes money from the use of the personal data it collects in ways that users may not realize or appreciate.

The threats to privacy in the digital age have clearly outpaced the government’s regulatory framework. The dominant legislation that governs Internet privacy, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, was written in 1986, before social-networking sites like Facebook were even conceived. The ECPA says that the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, applies to digital files — but only if they are not given to a third party server. Given that Facebook is a third party server with some of our most private information, the law is of little use. For the time being, safeguarding privacy is up to individual users.

The educational campaign Mr. Gansler helped arrange will consist of tips and resources to help clarify some commonly misunderstood privacy questions. The information will be available both on the websites of attorney general across the country and, more importantly, on Facebook itself. Tips include things like, “Think before you tag and check what you are tagged in,” and “Check your audience before you post.”

Soon, public service announcements, starring various attorneys general and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, will also appear on users’ news feeds, in the way that sponsored advertisements often do. That’s important because the information will be more likely to be seen by those who need it most.

It’s a nice idea, but we can’t help but observe that this is also a pretty sweet arrangement for Mr. Gansler, a man with plans to run for governor next year, and for the attorneys general in 49 other states, many of whom likely have similar ambitions. It’s unclear what their presence adds to the effort.

Indeed, the arrangement poses a greater risk than the possibility that Mr. Gansler will get a little free publicity. The use of his image — or that of one of his colleagues from another state — may suggest to the public that the government is giving its sanction to Facebook’s privacy policies or even playing some role in regulating them. If so, a campaign to get people to be more careful in their online activities might have the opposite effect.

After all, the greatest perpetrator of privacy confusion is often Facebook itself; the company’s practice of manipulating privacy settings, even after users have taken the time to set them, can become a confounding puzzle and headache. Facebook’s “targeted advertisements” are very often a result of information users hadn’t realized they released.

Mr. Gansler says he raised the issue of Facebook’s frequent privacy policy changes, but the site has made no commitment to mend its ways. The partnership, it seems, only goes so far. If this is a step in the right direction, it is a small one that serves to underscore the need for a much broader conversation about these issues.


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