Facebook's privacy blunders may trip up potential enterprise push

If Facebook launches a business-focused network, CIOs will have to consider its privacy record

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with a Facebook logo
REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

If Facebook launches a social network for the workplace, CIOs will have to decide whether they can get past Facebook's history of privacy issues.

"That is something that has to be addressed," said Angela Yochem, global CIO of Philadelphia-based BDP International, a company that specializes in shipping sensitive materials. "We're extremely concerned about privacy… That's something that could shut this thing down before the start."

cio angela yochem

Angela Yochem is global CIO of BDP International.

Earlier this week, a report in the Financial Times, citing unnamed sources, said Facebook is working on launching a business-oriented network.

Though the new network would have a newsfeed and the familiar Facebook look and feel, the focus would be on the enterprise and on connecting users with their work colleagues, sharing work documents and communicating on the network.

Facebook wouldn't comment on the report but, if it's accurate, the so-called "Facebook at Work," would be a combination of social network and enterprise-level collaboration tool.

With more than 1 billion users, Facebook is the world's largest social network. If it enters the enterprise market, Facebook would likely have a large base of potential users who already know how to use its features because they are already signed up. That would mean minimal training for a workplace-version of what they already use at to keep up with their friends and family.

While many would already be familiar with how to use Facebook, business executives may be equally familiar with the privacy issues the social network has faced – repeatedly – in the past.

Over the years, Facebook has been involved in several privacy uproars, including a software bug that enabled spammers to steal users' names and photos, and its offering of a set of tools that allowed third-party web sites to grab user data off Facebook.

The company also was called out for running a weeklong experiment that manipulated users' News Feeds to conduct a psychological study on about 700,000 people.

Late last year, Facebook was sued for allegedly intercepting users' private messages. Last summer, privacy groups criticized the company for its plans to gather iusers' Internet browsing histories while they surfed other websites.

Despite these instances, Facebook has shown signs of learning its lesson on users' privacy concerns.

Last week, the company launched a new page, dubbed Privacy Basics, to help figure out how to make their profiles as secure, or open, as they want them to be.

Still, it's a long and complicated privacy history that CIOs will have to consider if Facebook comes through with a collaboration and communication platform.

"When you think about Facebook and the legacy they have right now, in terms of privacy and security, it's not their calling card," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis. "It's going to be hard for them to make a case that they can be a trusted partner. They certainly have the engineering moxie to do so but it's going to be an upward battle for them to convince enterprise IT that they should open up a stream into the enterprise."

He added that if Facebook does launch an enterprise version of its network, it would have to be completely walled off from its social network. Business people, and their companies, are not going to want their Saturday night party photos going out to their managers and company partners.

"It can't be open to some of the issues Facebook has had regarding privacy and security," said Shimmin.

Scott Strawn, an analyst with IDC, noted that Facebook is known for making a lot of its money by taking information from users' posts and comments to serve them up targeted ads. That may not fly with business users.

"People are much more sensitive about their work data and how their business dealings are being tracked," Strawn said. "If you're an enterprise client, you probably don't want your information collected while you're on [Facebook's] enterprise platform."

Hadley Reynolds, an analyst with NextEra Research, pointed out, that Facebook may have a rocky privacy history, but it's not the only company in that spot.

"It's proving that just about every corporation in America has had a spotty privacy record," he said. "I don't think this will be more of a concern, but it'll be one of the factors that makes a CIO stay up at night wondering. Would they stake their career on Facebook keeping their information locked up? I don't think so."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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