Employers – Keep Your Hands Off My Facebook

March 23, 2012

Philosophy, Technology

Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

The assault on privacy not only never ends, it escalates, gets more intrusive, and more dismissive of individual rights every day.  The latest episode concerns demands for prospective employees’ Facebook passwords.  It apparently is not enough for employers to browse through what is put up publicly; they, now, want to see what is posted only for our friends. They claim that all social networking posts are, by nature, public, and therefore, they have equal rights to them. In an informative article, Chase Kell of The Right Click, has outlined the problem and its dimensions  http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/right-click/employer-requesting-facebook-login-raises-privacy-concerns-171352409.html

Justin Bassett, a statistician from New York City, was minutes into what he thought was just another job interview when the standard discourse had quickly developed into an invasion of privacy.

He had just finished answering a few typical character questions when the interviewer began to search for his Facebook profile. But when it was discovered that Bassett had made his profile private, the interviewer quickly requested his login information.

Bassett immediately refused, stating he didn’t want to work for a company that would request such personal information, before withdrawing his application. Since the report began making the rounds online, many have voiced their concern over the intrusive request.

“It’s akin to requiring someone’s house keys,” said Orin Kerr, Federal prosecutor and law professor at George Washington University in the Globe. Kerr adds that he finds such a request to be “an egregious privacy violation.”

All of this seems cut and dry to me – if you have password-protected your information and deliberately restricted its access, then how can anyone outside that security circle possibly get in?  America being what it is, however, there is always legal wiggle room.

The author goes on to cite some measures that are being taken to protect individual privacy, but they are not encouraging:

Questions have since been raised about the legalities of such a practice. Both Maryland and Illinois have proposed legislation that would forbid public agencies from requesting social media access….

Facebook’s brief statement on [a recent legal case] declared that they forbid “anyone from soliciting the login information or accessing an account belonging to someone else,” according to Techspot. Section four of Facebook’s terms of service clearly indicates that “you will not share your password, (or in the case of developers, your secret key), let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account.”

Perhaps most discouraging of all is the following:

Echoing that sentiment is the Department of Justice, who considers it a federal crime to violate the terms of service of a social networking site, although admitting that such violations “would go unprosecuted.” [my italics and bolding].

The Department of Justice is no different than the police patrol in a crime-ridden city responding to a report of a stolen bicycle.  They nod politely and do nothing. Bigger crimes to solve. However, if enough bikes are stolen to indicate a crime wave or some organized theft ring, they will act.  Government (and Congress) will never act because they will never be pushed to do so.  Why?

First, because the country is just coming out of a recession and jobs are even more important than ever.

Baltimore resident Robert Collins was interviewing for a security guard position, last year, when he received a similar request.

“During his interview, he was asked for his login information for Facebook, so the interviewer could check for possible gang affiliations,” according to a Techspot report. “Despite being shocked at such a request, he complied, stating that he needed the job to provide for his family and felt he had no choice.”

[Economists have observed] that “as the job market steadily improves, other job candidates are confronting the same question from prospective employers, and some of them cannot afford to say no.”

Second, those of us not in the job market and concerned about invasion of privacy issues are beginning to wear out.  There are simply too many such issues to keep track of and pursue.  Surveillance cameras, Patriot Act, TSA, Google, Facebook, cookies….where will it all end?

Third, most Americans are simply not that interested in privacy issues, and willingly trade prying eyes for consumer convenience.  We like the fact that Amazon knows what our preferences are and can suggest a new book or movie without us asking or searching.  We feel that surveillance is a necessary element in our war against terrorism and crime.  Perhaps this is different.  When we begin to realize that what we innocently put up on Facebook may not be innocent at all to a prospective employer, then we may act.

Imagine what an employer could look for – and I don’t mean giggling over the pictures of you canoodling under the Eiffel Tower, but, rather, using sophisticated software that can read millions of bits per second, flagging all words, phrases, and images that he/she has coded in.

The argument is often used that firms with “security” interests need to carefully screen their employees, just as the FBI, State Department, and Peace Corps are allowed to do.  Of course, “security” can be interpreted many ways.  I worked in the very competitive world of international management consulting.  There, as in most aggressive industries, information was extremely valuable.  A disgruntled employee or even one who has decided to leave for another company and wants to feather their nest there, might easily pass on company secrets.  Employees who hold fringe political views and who express them, not uncommonly, with anger and hostility, might easily disrupt the harmony of the company community, thus eroding its “‘security”.

Even companies that are not overtly concerned with security, would not refuse an offer to screen all job applicants if the screening process was simple, quick, and affordable.  Sophisticated software meets all these criteria.  I once stayed in a hotel where I wanted to use the Business Center computer to print an airline ticket.  Whenever I tried to login to my Yahoo account, I kept getting an “Unauthorized Access” warning.  The brief explanation was that “inappropriate material” was found in my emails.  This meant that the hotel software, in milliseconds, had “read” all my emails and found something objectionable.  Later I went through them and could find nothing; but surely there must have been an off-color word, slightly provocative photo, or suspicious hyperlink.

So, for a “One-Time Offer” of $1,000 a prospective employer can buy the “Standard Software Package”, which will screen Facebook references to terrorism, pornography, and extremist political views.  For another $500, it can screen for racist, sexist, or ageist comments.  For an additional amount, it will screen for anti-social statements, rebelliousness, or just plain persnicketiness.

I have written previously about how Facebook itself was guilty of invasion of privacy, agreeing to let the EPA look at the Facebook pages of people in a particular geographic area to determine who was opposing their initiatives; how Google routinely scans emails for key words that suggest possible interest in a consumer product; how we live with cookies because they enable retailers to remember us, etc.  I wrote that the problem lies not only with the retailers, but with us consumers – we are willing, complacent lovers.

This relinquishing of Facebook passwords might be the one issue that can ignite some real civil protest.  “We are what we post” is now a truism.  We deliberately share ourselves with others, and as we become more and more comfortable with the medium, we pay less and less attention to what we put up.  We know – sort of – that what we write is public; but this is America, so we don’t have to worry about our freedoms, we say; but when our prospective employer can see everything I wrote about my trip to Cancun, OMG!

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