Facebook got a nod from Ontario’s privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian yesterday when the social media site announced the roll out of several new security features aimed at preventing online bullying and making the site safer for users.
“Bullying is a pet peeve of mine. I was bullied as a kid and I hated it. I think this is a positive development from Facebook,” Cavoukian said in an interview with ITBusiness.ca.
Among the new features released by Facebook on Tuesday was a “social reporting tool” which allows users to notify members of their community, in addition to Facebook, when they see a post that they find to be harrassing or offensive. The feature not only enables the user to ask the poster of the image or comment to delete the post, but also gives the user the option to reach out to his or her Facebook connections to seek help.
“I like this feature because it mimics what people would otherwise do in the offline world if they have a problem,” said Cavoukian. She said she liked Facebook’s idea of encouraging people to open up and seek help from friends in order to resolve problems.
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In other times, Facebook had received flak from Cavoukian and the Privacy Commissioner of Canada for the site’s failure to protect its users’ privacy rights.
“It’s about time Facebook came out with these features,” said information security expert Claudiu Popa, president of Informatica Corp.in Toronto.
Popa said Facebook is especially on the “right track” in developing a process whereby not only the site, but also the online community of a user is informed about possible privacy and security infractions. “This will help in improving user confidence and trust on the site.”
Also yesterday, Facebook released a redesigned Family Safety Centre, an existing safety resources site for that contains articles and videos on safety and privacy. The site is aimed at parents, teachers and youths. In the coming weeks the site will offer a free downloadable guide on online safety.
Facebook also rolled out two-factor authentication to prevent the unauthorized access to a user’s account. The feature asks a person to enter a code each time they try to log onto a Facebook account from a new device. The feature can be turned on or off by the account owner.
Earlier this year, Facebook introduced secure connections via HTTPS. Yesterday, the social media site tweaked the settings a bit so that if a user starts using a non-HTTPS application on Facebook, the site will automatically switch the session back to HTTPS when the user is done with the application. This alteration will enable users to enjoy games and apps that do not work with HTTPS, but also allow them to regain the security settings automatically after using the app.
These features address the recent spate of account hackings, according to Popa. “Lately we’ve had numerous reports of hijacked Facebook accounts being used by cybercriminals for spamming or phishing purposes. Two-factor authentication can help make this harder.”
Social reporting tool
During a live stream conference on Facebook yesterday, Arturo Bejar, a social engineer at Facbeook, explained the rationale behind the social reporting tool.
Previously, a Facebook feature allowed users to contact people who have posted their photos. With the feature, the user can send a direct message to the poster of the image. The default text says: “Hey, I didn’t like this photo. Please remove.” The user can change the text and also chose to immediately block or remove the poster from their list of friends.
On Tuesday, Facebook extended the feature to include status updates and profiles. Facebook profiles and updates tend to be where online bullying occurs, said Bejar.
After reporting an offensive photo or post, the user is prompted with a message from Facebook asking “Are you in physical danger? If so, please report this threat to a local authority.”
The user is also presented with the option to “get help from a trusted friend.”
“The basic insight was to mimic online how people deal with problems such as bullying or stalking in the offline world,” he said.
Facebook said it plans to forward a copy of the harassing photo or post to a friend the user chooses.
Bejar said the social reporting tool encourages targets of online bullying or harassment to avoid isolation and seek out help from trusted friends or figures of authority.“Safety has always been a social experience: as friends and family, we look out for each other and pass along advice to help each other stay safe,” said Bejar.
Work in progress
A visit to the new Family Safety Centre yesterday found several brief safety and privacy advice articles and links to the Facebook Security Page. So far, 567 people said they “Like” the centre.
“There’s nothing much there right now its more like a shell for other things to come,” said Popa of Informatica. “It’s a work in progress,” said Commissioner Cavoukian.
Popa said Facebook would do well to carry this initiative to the fullest. “If they drop the ball on this, they can lose a lot of public trust.”
Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at ITBusiness.ca. Follow him on Twitter, read his blog, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.