Facebook’s chief privacy officer works to keep 1 billion friends in the loop

Facebook’s chief privacy officer works to keep 1 billion friends in the loop

"What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

That’s the message on a poster on the wall of Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., which is where Erin Egan went in 2011 to interview for a position with the social network.

Knowing her work and abilities in Internet privacy and security issues, Facebook wanted Egan for its team. It was she who was hesitant.

“I had an established practice with top 100-type companies and a tremendous team of people at Covington,” Egan said, referring to the law firm Covington & Burling.

Considering a jump to Facebook, Egan admitted, “I wasn’t sure. I was, if you will, daunted, a little bit.” 

She went through a day of interviews at Menlo Park, the last one with Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who is viewed as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s co-pilot at the company. Still undecided, Egan returned to Washington, where she received from Sandberg a copy of the “What would you do” poster.

“That’s exactly right — with no risk is no reward,” Egan said. “What I was afraid of wasn’t about going to Facebook. It was giving up the comfort at Covington, but once I saw that poster, I knew.”

She joined Facebook in September 2011 and became the company chief privacy officer for policy, located in the nation’s capital.

The company needed her.

Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has amassed a mountainous hoard of user data and has been scrutinized by lawmakers and federal regulators for how it uses that data and keeps it private. 

Egan’s job is to help explain the company’s privacy policies to its gigantic user base, which reached 1 billion monthly active users in October. 

She also ensures that feedback from lawmakers and regulators is incorporated into Facebook’s policies and weighs the privacy implications of new products the social network is looking to roll out.

Building and maintaining users’ trust is paramount to the company’s mission, Egan said in an interview with The Hill. 

“If people don’t feel comfortable and trust Facebook with their data, they’re not going to share and connect with others,” she said. 

Egan works on a team of more than a dozen Facebook employees across several key departments — product development, security, site integrity and privacy, among others. 

“We review every product coming down the pike and we analyze it from all different angles, how products should be changed and what kinds of notice we should provide [users],” Egan said. 

Egan has a major leadership role for the company in Washington, as online privacy is its biggest policy battleground. The latest fights are starting to heat up; the FTC is preparing updated rules for child online privacy, and lawmakers are eyeing a fresh push for privacy legislation next year. 

Facebook has also drawn criticism in recent weeks from privacy watchdog groups over proposed changes to its data use policies and site governance process, which includes ending the system it uses to let people vote on proposed changes to its governing documents.

Another new feature, called “Ask the Chief Privacy Officer,” will let users question Egan directly about the social network’s privacy policies and practices. She is also slated to host webcasts that address users’ comments and questions about privacy and security on the social network. 

Jeffrey Chester, president of the Center for Digital Democracy, which has been a fierce critic of Facebook’s privacy efforts, was complimentary of Egan’s candid approach.

“Erin has been wiling to sit down and have substantive discussions on key issues,” Chester said. 

Born in Milwaukee, Egan grew up in the Washington area after her parents took positions with the federal government — her father at the Justice Department and her mother at the Pentagon. She attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduated from George Washington Law School.

She joined the Washington office of Covington & Burling after clerking for a federal judge right out of law school. It was at Covington that Egan started working on communications and tech issues and her interest in data privacy was sparked.

“For me, I was drawn to it,” Egan said. “What I realized as I continued on my journey was I felt most strongly about the consumer issues and understanding the consumer perspective when it comes to data.”

Egan said she was interested in observing “the beneficial ways that data can be used to provide products and services,” and enjoyed helping clients develop privacy solutions that protected their consumers’ data but did not hamper the company’s innovation. 

Egan served as outside counsel to Microsoft during its 2002 privacy settlement with the FTC over its Passport online authentication service, which collected personal information from users and let them sign in across multiple websites using their name and password. At the time, the FTC said it found that Microsoft had “falsely represented” the measures it had in place to protect people’s personal information.

Egan said her work on the landmark Microsoft case helped solidify her interest in privacy and data security.

“From there, I really just began to focus on privacy as my key discipline,” she said.

Around that same time, Egan said, Congress started to turn its attention onto the issue and began introducing pieces of privacy legislation, such as measures aimed at cracking down on spyware.  

That to led a new career opportunity for Egan, who launched Covington’s global privacy and data security practice group, which she co-chaired. 

“She’s extraordinarily fast on her feet and also a very insightful and deep thinker,” said Brad Smith, general counsel for Microsoft. “Certainly when she was at Covington, she was the quintessential example of a great leader.” 

While at Covington, Egan helped clients navigate the changing privacy regulatory landscape in Europe and the U.S. and worked on policy issues ranging from spam and spyware to data security breaches. She would also help companies translate their privacy and data collection policies to users and ensure their technology aligned with the law.

Egan served as counsel to a range of companies, including Hulu, Nintendo, American Express and The Washington Post.

She also worked as counsel for Facebook, a company that knew a cyber-privacy expert when it saw one.