A recent post on Jezebel brings attention to a troubling trend – colleges and employers are increasingly demanding access to the private online accounts of applicants. While most professionals understand that their public data on social networks is more or less fair game (and that not posting anything potentially embarrassing where it might be found later is the best policy), this goes well beyond the level of scrutiny most of us have come to expect.
A few organizations have been willing to “compromise” on the issue. It’s not a breach of privacy if they don’t ask for your password and just force you to log in and let them watch you scroll through your news feed during a job interview, right? And it’s not weird to require student athletes to “friend” their coaches, who are allowed to monitor everything they read and write, even if it’s for friends only. Right?
Perhaps the most high-profile case was when the Maryland Department of Corrections began requiring access to the Facebook accounts of job applicants. This was ostensibly to avoid hiring prospects with gang ties – which is a noble goal, but is Facebook really the best way to obtain that information? The agency confirmed to the ACLU that it reviewed the social media accounts of more than 2,600 applicants, and only denied employment to 7 people because of their Facebook pages.
While submitting to this profile review is supposed to be voluntary, at least in Maryland, almost all applicants agree to the breach of privacy, worried they won’t be called back after the interview if they don’t.
Bradley Shear, a lawyer based in Washington DC, says in an interview with MSNBC that this is a violation of First Amendment Rights:
“I can’t believe some people think it’s OK to do this,” he said. “Maybe it’s OK if you live in a totalitarian regime, but we still have a Constitution to protect us. It’s not a far leap from reading people’s Facebook posts to reading their email. … As a society, where are we going to draw the line?”
He also points out that colleges might be taking on unnecessary liability if they closely monitor students’ online activities:
“What if the University of Virginia had been monitoring accounts in the Yeardley Love case and missed signals that something was going to happen?” he said, referring to a notorious campus murder. “What about the liability the school might have?”
This is still a legally murky area. It’s unclear what rights you really have if your school or employer demands your Facebook password. In time, we can probably expect the ACLU to start taking on more of these cases – and maybe even for state laws to be passed clarifying the issue. For now, the best solution might simply be to either stand your ground, understanding the potential consequences, or to delete your Facebook account altogether.
Photo credit: Birgerking