Will Facebook Timeline put your job in jeopardy?

Like it or not, Facebook Timeline is expected to become mandatory soon for all of the social networking site's 800 million users. Timeline brings new and complex features that could pose privacy risks for the thousands of federal executives and employees active on Facebook, according to a privacy advocate.

Facebook Timeline installs a major formatting change to users’ profiles that makes previously archived information much more accessible and also allows for more splashy visual display.

For example, Timeline makes users’ friends lists more viewable and makes it more difficult to control the friends’ lists visibility, David Jacobs, consumer protection fellow for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said in a Jan. 11 interview with Federal Computer Week.


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This additional exposure presumably could be problematic if a federal user was friends with controversial public figures such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or with members of a self-help group for people with addictions or other problems. It also could reveal embarrassing political connections, such as a Democratic appointee who has several prominent Republicans on his friends list.

The risk is greater for some feds than others. Facebook connections could reveal associations that would threaten a security clearance, for example, but possibly be unimportant for feds without clearances. Even though the information, once posted, will always be there to be found unless the user deletes it, before Timeline the past stayed buried unless someone went digging deep to find it, critics point out. The new feature brings each Facebook user's history closer to the surface.

 Furthermore, Facebook friendships appear to be visible under Timeline even if they had previously been hidden, according to Jacobs.

“Associational privacy is an important issue,” Jacobs said. “I think this is an instance where privacy settings have been changed by Timeline.” A ZDNet blogger described details of the alleged issues with friend settings in a recent post.

Furthermore, addressing this and similar privacy risks requires the painstaking work of combing through the users' entire history of published items to set them so they don't appear in Timeline, he added. “There is no global way to hide information from Timeline,” Jacobs said.

Facebook officials were not immediately available to comment on the ability to view friends’ lists, but in general they have insisted that users have full control over their privacy settings with Timeline.

"Timeline does not change the privacy of any content," a Facebook spokesman told The Hill newspaper's Hillicon Valley blog in a statement. "Everything is accessible to the same people who could or likely had seen it already in their News Feed sometime in the past."

Nonetheless, EPIC, along with several bloggers and technology publications, are calling attention to potential risks.

EPIC in December charged that Timeline has violated terms of a privacy settlement agreement reached with the Federal Trade Commission in November 2011.

EPIC had filed a complaint about Facebook’s privacy practices two years ago, which ultimately led to that agreement. Under the terms of that agreement, Facebook pledged to give users prominent notice of privacy changes and obtain their consent for privacy changes.

Timeline began rolling out to users voluntarily on Dec. 15, allowing for display of personal content that previously had been archived. Users have seven days to delete content before it goes live. While Timeline is voluntary for now, it is expected that Facebook will make it mandatory in the coming weeks.

Facebook is recommending that users activate Timeline at their convenience and take advantage of the seven-day period to ensure that their privacy is protected.

Facebook also advises that activity hidden from Timeline still shows up in users’ activity logs and is eligible to appear in friends’ news feeds. For full deletion of a story, users are advised to select “delete post.”

However, as Jacobs warned, there may be some pitfalls for federal workers and other users in trying to address all the Facebook Timeline privacy risks.

News organizations, experts and bloggers are reporting other risks, as well as a few benefits, from Facebook Timeline as well:

  • The ZDNet blog reports that Facebook privacy concerns have deepened as a result of Timeline.
  • Blogger Catherine Alexandra notes that despite the privacy controls for Timeline, it is difficult to determine exactly which Facebook content is being shared: “You won’t necessarily know which parts of your own activity are being published because your own activity isn’t going to show up in your Ticker. This can be a little confusing if you’re trying to pinpoint what is being shared and where,” she wrote in a Jan. 7 blog post.
  • On the other hand, Forbes reported that Facebook Timeline offers an opportunity for users to personalize their profile to display their creativity, which could be a boon for some federal employees and executives who use the network for work, such as new media directors.
  • CNET is reporting that the Facebook Timeline iPhone app doesn't work smoothly and does not allow for deletion of photographs.

Timeline is the latest in a long line of changes to privacy and user settings made by the giant social network in recent years. It also is one of the most sweeping changes to date, affecting users’ most personal content on the site.

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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