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Public entities face up to social media liabilities

Mitigation strategies center on restrictions, clearly stated policies


PORTLAND, Ore.—Social networking technology presents many exposures and supervision challenges for public entity risk managers, experts say.

Social media usage is growing exponentially, with millions of users visiting multiple platforms such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, among others, said Charles P.E. Leitch, principal at Patterson Buchanan Fobes Leitch & Kalzer Inc. P.S. in Seattle.

“People are always making mistakes with technology,” Mr. Leitch said during a session titled, “Realistic Supervision of Technology and Social Media,” at the Public Risk Management Assn.'s 32nd Annual Conference.

“Supervision of social media is a moving target,” Mr. Leitch said. “It's basically chaos.”

The difficulties in managing social media risks relate to its reach, Mr. Leitch said. For example, a Canadian student made a video of himself wielding a golf ball retriever as a weapon against imaginary foes, which his classmates later found and uploaded it to the Internet. The video, which was intended to be private, has been viewed 900 million times, Mr. Leitch said.

The student's family sued the families of his classmates alleging harassment among other charges, and later reached an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount.

Public entity risk managers “cannot ignore the implications of social media usage,” Mr. Leitch said.

Some risks public entities need to consider include teachers “friending” students on social media platforms, which could lead to inappropriate relationships.

Another example involves municipalities that have policies requiring job applicants to provide social media account usernames and passwords as part of their employee background check. Mr. Leitch said such actions could lead to invasion of privacy allegations, which often are championed by individual rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Social networking platforms used in schools or municipal offices are potential soft entry points for cyber hackers, said Robert J. Krall, director of risk control services in Chicago for Trident Insurance Services L.L.C., a unit of Argo Group International Holdings Ltd.

Public entities often store personally identifiable information from credit card payments, student records and tax records. Cyber threats such as malware can be used to infiltrate computer networks to pilfer financial data and/or account information, Mr. Krall said.

One strategy to mitigate the exposures is to restrict access to social media networks on work computers, he said. If employees use sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn, they should use their “own computers on their own time,” Mr. Krall said during the educational session “Cyber Liability, Exposures and Strategies.”

While there is no single solution to address cyber risks, solid policy and management controls, such as password controls, secure access points and up-to-date firewalls, in conjunction with restricted access to social networks, can provide a good infrastructure for loss control, he said.

There are many policies to control social media use in schools and municipalities that risk managers can use, but “consistency is a big problem,” Mr. Leitch said.

A uniform notice of expectations regarding social media should be in place with consistent training, enforcement and recognition of the policy's limitations, he said. The policy crafted to include multiple social networking platforms and possibilities, not just Facebook, for example.

“You have to think what the technology will be later on” when trying to put together social media policies, Mr. Leitch said.