Protecting confidentiality on Facebook

Matthew Henry / Burst / Licensed under Creative Commons ZeroMany of our readers reacted with surprise to Monday’s post (“Facebook connects your clients, even if you don’t use Facebook”). It certainly reinforces the idea that if you are not actively and regularly working to protect the confidentiality of your clients on social media, you may not be doing enough.

For those of you unfamiliar with the recent scandal involving Facebook and the data collection company Cambridge Analytica, you should know that it’s bad. In short, Cambridge Analytica was able to gather private information about millions of Facebook users after (far fewer) users took a short personality test. The terms of that test granted Cambridge Analytica access to the test takers’ identities, friend networks, and likes. What’s gotten so much attention — the reason this story became such a big deal — is that those terms also allowed Cambridge Analytica to gain access to similar information about all of the test taker’s friends.

The company was able to take advantage of a feature available to third-party developers in 2014, which has since been banned by Facebook. With just 270,000 users having actually taken the personality test, Cambridge Analytica was able to gain access to data on up to 87 million Facebook users. They then used the information gathered to tailor political advertisements. Concerns have been raised about the impact those advertisements may have had on the presidential election. You can read a much more information about the scandal in this New York Times article.

Why this matters to mental health professionals

This is another clear and undeniable example that connecting your personal and professional lives on social media can have a negative impact on client confidentiality. With the information gathered by Cambridge Analytica, it is possible that the company could determine those users who were then engaged in therapy. (Facebook itself almost certainly knows.) The company might even be able to connect a given user with their specific therapist, if connections or conversations between the two via Facebook existed.

The concern about client confidentiality on Facebook is not new. Facebook openly acknowledges having access to some very personal and specific information about each user. What is new, however, is the issue that other companies or groups may have gotten access to much of that same information.

In addition to the suggestions for protecting confidentiality identified in Ben Caldwell’s article several weeks ago, it now seems appropriate to add the following suggestions:

  1. Create clearly separate your personal profile and professional page, if you’re using social media for professional purposes.
  2. Avoid applications and similar third-party add-ons (surveys, advertisements, and games) on your professional page. While Facebook has closed the loophole allowing outside companies access to users’ friend networks, it remains true that by avoiding applications and add-ons, you can significantly limit the information about users or commenters on your page that other companies or groups will ever have access to. If you do use any of these add-ons, check their privacy policies closely.
  3. Tighten the privacy settings on your professional page and personal profile, to protect your data and that of your connections. Doing so will help to ensure that the least amount of information is gathered about you and those you connect/engage with. You can read more about how to adjust your privacy settings here.

Also worth reiterating is the importance of warning clients about these risks. Clients may not know, and may be quick to blame you if they believe their confidentiality has been compromised. You can get our Copy-and-Paste Social Media Policy for FREE by using this link. (It automatically applies a coupon code for 100% off when you get to checkout.)

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