Agencies lag on social media security, privacy concerns, GAO says

Federal agencies that use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to push their messages to the public and gather citizen input haven't adequately investigated privacy and security concerns with the new online tools, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

About half the 23 agencies GAO surveyed also have been lax in developing guidance on when and whether text, pictures and video posted to social media sites need to be maintained in accordance with the 1950 Federal Records Act, which requires the conservation of important government information, the report found, and the National Archives hasn't given agencies sufficient guidance on that point either.

"Without clear policies and procedures for properly identifying and managing social media records, potentially important records of government activity may not be appropriately preserved," GAO said.

Of the 23 agencies surveyed, only 12 have developed guidance on social media records management, and 12 have updated their privacy policies to address social media use and only seven have identified and documented security risks related to social media use, according to the report.

Most of the security concerns GAO highlighted had to do with malicious code embedded in links and documents on social media sites that an unwitting agency Tweeter or Facebook poster might be tricked into clicking. That code could then jump from the Tweeter's computer to other computers in the agency and deliver classified or personal information back to a hacker.

The Archives agreed with the agency's assessment and will publish new guidance with a list of best practices for when agencies are required to maintain social media posts, GAO said.

About half the agencies included in its study also agreed to improve their guidance on security and privacy related to social media, GAO said. A handful of agencies dissented from some recommendations.

The Agriculture Department, for instance, argued it doesn't have to conduct a more complex privacy assessment because it doesn't collect or disseminate any personally identifiable information in connection with its use of social media. The State Department argued it didn't have to conduct a further security assessment of its social media use because it posts only "low-impact information" to social media sites that doesn't amount to a security concern.

The GAO report did not assess the effectiveness of agencies' use of social media at informing the public about their priorities or increasing citizen engagement.