ACLU: Employers demanding Facebook passwords is privacy invasion

ACLU: Employers demanding Facebook passwords is privacy invasion

Summary: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has spoken. Employers and prospective employers should not be asking you for your Facebook password. Doing so is invading your privacy.


Earlier this week, a story about job seekers being asked for their Facebook passwords surfaced. We've heard this one before (see links below) but the story got a lot more attention than usual because it was covered by the Associated Press. In fact, the article didn't have anything newsworthy to report, as it was just a second look at what happened two years ago when the Maryland Division of Corrections demanded the Facebook login credentials of an officer during a recertification interview.

Still, the report took a closer look at the issue of employers asking for Facebook account credentials and how it hasn't really been addressed yet (you can read the full story at CBS News). Here's an excerpt:

Questions have been raised about the legality of the practice, which is also the focus of proposed legislation in Illinois and Maryland that would forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks.

Since the rise of social networking, it has become common for managers to review publically available Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other sites to learn more about job candidates. But many users, especially on Facebook, have their profiles set to private, making them available only to selected people or certain networks.

Companies that don't ask for passwords have taken other steps — such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign non-disparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.

Since I had already written about these various cases, I was more interested in what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had to say. This is the same organization that helped the officer fight back against his employer and which is now helping a 12-year-old sue her school district after she was forced to hand over her Facebook credentials.

"It's an invasion of privacy for private employers to insist on looking at people's private Facebook pages as a condition of employment or consideration in an application process," ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said in a statement. "People are entitled to their private lives. You’d be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside. It's equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person's private social media account."

I completely agree with the ACLU. My colleague David Gewirtz put it best:

There is a huge difference between public and private. Asking to view your public postings is like asking for your home address and then taking a drive by your house to see where you live. Asking for your Facebook password is like demanding the key to your house, your alarm code, and to be put on your bank account as a signer. They are very different degrees of request and it's quite unfortunate that people are conflating the two.

We can't just keep relying on the ACLU to save us from the crazies. Until there's legislation that can protect you, I would advise telling your employer or school that you don't have a Facebook account and that they can go shove it.

See also:

Topic: Social Enterprise

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years,
he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars
Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • what is stopping

    this person to say that he/she does not have a Facebook account?
    • Anybody on Facebook can see if sombody else has a Facebook account

      Although they might not be able so see any details about the account, they can easily check if someone HAS an account.

      Lying during a job interview will usually get you disqualified from consideration for the job,

      You would be better off telling the interviewer that you do not wish to share your private life with a potential employer. Follow that up with a polite explanation of why. Then ask the interviewer for their Facebook login and password.
    • Why have a Facebook account?

      Nothing like opening mail, unless people do it with their friends reading out every boring detail.
      Richard Flude
    • Because that would be lying.

      At least, it would be for anyone with a FB account. Employers tend not to hire people who knowingly make false statements during the hiring process. It's better to say that you do have a Facebook account, the contents of which are private. The employer may access my public page but that's it. And don't friend anyone at the company, especially HR people. The only thing that prospective employees should do is to make almost all content in your profile private, restricted only to your friends (not "friends of friends"). Make just enough information public to verify that your FB account really is you (namely, your name, a clear profile picture, maybe your current city, perhaps your education info).
  • I agree

    The quote from Mr. Gewirtz really is the best way to put it. Companies are ridiculously stupid if they seriously think they're entitled to that kind of information.
    • Entitlement mentality runs both ways...

      I don't think they're entitled to it, but you're also not entitled to work for them. You're two private parties trying to find terms you'll agree on in working for them and they'll agree on in hiring you. The school situation is different, because a school is not a private organization (at least, a public school is not) and so you have a whole series of 1st and 4th amendment issues that arise. Those issues don't arise in the context of a private employer. Those who don't agree with this can only address it through legislation prohibiting the practice.
  • I agree 100%

    signing a non-disparagement agreement I can understand. I don't want someone not qualified for an advancement to get on some social media site claiming that "the company XXXXXXX is racist, (or sexist, or whatever) as they advanced so and so over me!"

    As for asking for passwords or whatever, way out of line. I agree, David Gewirtz said in nicely.
    William Farrel
    • Are you sure?

      I'm not sure I agree with even non-disparagement agreements. If I have a beef with an employer or former employer, why should I be forbidden to discuss it in any forum? We already have libel and slander laws. If my remarks cross the line into libel or slander, the company can sue me. Of course, in the U.S. the truth is a defense for someone accused of libel or slander.

      So why should I be held hostage by a gag order as a condition of employment?
      • And why not? A former employer I would say go for it

        as they can not fire you.

        But I agree with William Farrel, as why should some employee of a company be granted the opportunity to lie on a social network, because he is attempting to create an illusion that it is the employer at fault, not him, maybe say because he was suspended for a week for inappropriate behavior at work?

        The business has rights, also. They have a right to protect their image for doing the right thing.

        If an employee is fired as he was videotaped stealing from the company, the employer is not allowed to mention that if another company calls for a reference on that person, and yet they would be telling the truth.

        Why should an employee have card blanche to disparage a company as he has his "own take" on something? He is hired to make the company money, not to lose the company money, as his "opinion" is just that, even though it is far from what is actually happening as he is not "in the know".

        Imagine if everyone at a company started chatting around the internet that they think the company is [i]going under[/i] because of problems in finacial related areas, when in truth it was really an issue with a screw up at a bank in the course of moving from one bank to another?

        Could that have a negative impact on perspective customers?
        John Zern
  • Asking interviewer for password

    "[i]Then ask the interviewer for their Facebook login and password. [/i]"

    Actually, that's a pretty good idea. If they want to know why, we all know that interviewers often describe the company and the job not they way it actually is but they way they hope someday it will be--they plan on going regional in the next year (something they've had "in the works" for the past 7 years ...) so they describe the company and the job as if everything is already set. Then when you get hired and start talking to co-workers you find out it's just pipe dreams. The "six-month salary reviews" haven't been conducted anytime in the past 5 years, etc.
  • Friending HR people

    [i]"And don't friend anyone at the company, especially HR people."[/i]

    It's important to also be aware that often HR pros in a given locale and field have something roughly equivalent to a listserv or chat forum where they exchange info. (It's more common in an area where there are a number of large employers in similar lines of business, where they know they'll regularly see the same applicants to multiple companies and current or former employees of each other.) So if one HR person finds "dirt" on a particular applicant, the info could wind up shared with pretty much all potential employers.

    Similarly, there is (or at least used to be) a listserv of [i]every[/i] graduate school in the U.S. If someone lied about their credentials in a grad school application and it was found out, their info would be put on the listserv--and then [i]every[/i] school would "mysteriously" find a reason to deny their application.
  • simple rule

    Facebook is strictly family and friends and that's how I use it.
  • You bet it is

    You bet it is
  • Some people

    Some people have no idea what privacy is. Or maybe they are just a**holes.
  • Another problem is

    employers demanding people to get a FB or other social network account. Some people simply do not want to be on the internet with their real name, picture and more information.
  • They're not only asking to invade your privacy

    But additionally, the privacy of everyone you have friended. Those people have trusted you to view their private photos and information yet your potential employer is asking you to break that trust and allow them to access it posing as you.

    It's very simply identity theft. Even if you've given them your password, accessing any of your friend's personal information posing as you, without their explicit permission is a felony. It will eventually shake out and the first loser will pay a lot for that mistake.