Employer vs Facebook: Is there a point to privacy settings?

Privacy settings may have briefly blinded the eyes of spying potential employers - but how far will they go to pry in to your social networks?
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The jobseekers of today are becoming more technologically aware of the blurred divide between a physical identity and its online counterpart, but it seems that changing one's privacy settings to bar the prying eyes of potential employers now is not enough.

Some businesses and academic institutions are demanding access to these treasure troves of information.

As if Facebook's introduction of its timeline feature wasn't enough, which blasted skeletons out of many a user's cupboard with the force of a sudden explosion, now it is not simply the new partner in your life who can see the drunken Facebook status you left in relation to the ex four years ago before frantic deletion -- but potentially a future employer.

Do you have an image or two of yourself being carried home after a heavy night? You may want to consider changing your name and perhaps denying you have a Facebook account -- especially as the temptation of so much personal information is now an irresistible lure for many organisations.

How would you feel if you went for an interview to try and secure a job or place at university, and as part of the process the organisation demanded access to all the information you keep concealed behind the privacy barricade?

In Maryland, if you decide to apply to the state Department of Corrections, you may be asked to log in to your Facebook account while the interviewer 'shoulder surfs'. They watch, and you click through wall posts, photos, and any other activities which are usually concealed through personal privacy settings.

The practice is 'voluntary', according to the ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann -- however, if you are going to refuse then the possibility of you being offered employment seems highly unlikely.

Due to this, how many applicants, no matter how much they disagree with the practice, will say no?

Originally, the 'social spying' went further, and job applicants were required to surrender their usernames and passwords. However, after a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the practice was suspended, following the case of Robert Collins, an officer who was forced to hand over his credentials during a recertification interview at the agency.

In a statement, an ACLU spokesperson said concerning the case:

“The demand for Facebook login information is not only a gross breach of privacy [..] it raises significant legal concerns under the Federal Stored Communications Act and Maryland state law, which protect privacy rights and extend protections to electronic communications."

Not only may this practice breach privacy law, but how is it an different from being required to hand over your email address and password? Social networks are not purely public arena platforms, especially as privacy tightens up across the board -- private messages can be exchanged, and your connections, who you are associated with and who your friends are, can be viewed.

For government agencies, it is possible to understand the reasoning behind it. If a governmental position requires top-security clearance, then the agency needs to be aware of your online footprint -- in case something is found which is unlawful or may be detrimental to the job in question.

But for 'mainstream' work, this seems utterly unacceptable. It's not only agencies that are taking this approach -- now even schools, colleges and universities are making their presence known.

Across the U.S. in various academic institutions, such as the University of North Carolina, students that take part in particular activities -- such as athletics -- are finding themselves required to 'friend' a coach or compliance officer.

Required. It is not voluntary. No accepted friend request, no sports.

Not only this, but high-tech ways to sniff out potential social media troublemakers are also being employed, such as the use of software UDilligence, which monitors social networks and 'threat' levels of individual students.

Such demands for 'private' content have caused outrage, with claims that these actions are violating constitutional rights and potentially limiting free speech. For example, Western Kentucky University has recently been placed in the firing line for its aggressive social media regulations over a fake Twitter account of one of its faculty members.

The Maryland ACLU legislative director agrees with the criticism, saying:

"This is an invasion of privacy. People have so much personal information on their pages now. A person can treat it almost like a diary. And (interviewers and schools) are also invading other people's privacy. They get access to that individual's posts and all their friends. There is a lot of private information there."

Two separate bills have been proposed to limit the demands that organisations can put forward for potential students or employees, aiming to completely ban social media access, whether it is a governmental agency or a university. ACLU supports the proposals.

There are legitimate causes for concern when it comes to activity on social media and online in general. However, not only does such activity potentially violate privacy law (what is the difference between having Facebook or my email account spied upon?), but it without doubt violates Facebook's Terms of Service:

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.

Not only, then, is this an invasion of privacy, but could jeopardize an individual's account itself. Perhaps singular legislation in separate states will not be enough -- instead, federal law should be developed to protect our privacy.

Image credit: CNet


Editorial standards