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Businesses with a social media presence should pay close attention to a privacy lawsuit filed against Facebook for allegedly sharing with advertisers, user data obtained from private messages on the social networking site, according to security experts and industry watchers.

Social networking companies build revenues through advertising and use data mining techniques to support targeted ads, according to Jody Brazil, president of security management firm FireMon. Organizations using social media, she said, should guard against data leaks and consider communications in social sites semi-public “regardless of how it is posted.”

A lawsuit filed in the federal court of North Carolina states that Facebook violated the United States federal Communications Privacy Act and California privacy laws when the social media company passed on to other parties, private messages sent by users.

Facebook allegedly scanned private messages containing links to Web sites to gain clues about a sender’s online habits which Facebook can then sell to advertisers, marketers and data aggregators.

Facebook claims the allegations are without merit and said it will defend itself in court.

Plaintiffs Mathew Campbell and Michael Hurley said that Facebook gave the impressions that private messages would not be passed on to other parties when it used the words “privately” and “private” when it released its integrated email and messaging service in 2010.

The duo is seeking the greater of either $100/day for each day of violation or $10,000 for each affected user, plus damages under California law.

The suit should remind businesses that only information meant for public consumption should be posted on social networks, as information leaks could affect not only the company but its partners and customers as well.

Privacy lawyer, Rebecca Harold of Rebecca Harold & Associates, LLC., said companies need to establish clear and strict policies around posting business-related content.

For instance, she said such content should not contain information about the company’s intellectual property, employees, customers or partners.

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