Social Media, Privacy, Passwords, and Who Gives A Rat’s Pajamas

There is apparently a new and worrying trend where employers are asking for job candidates’ Facebook account passwords:

When Justin Bassett interviewed for a job, he was stunned when the interviewer asked for something more than his experience and references: his Facebook username and password.

The New York statistician had finished answering a few character questions when the interviewer turned to peruse his Facebook page. Because she couldn’t see his private profile, she asked him for his login information.

Bassett refused and withdrew his application. But other job candidates are confronting the same question, and some can’t afford to say “no.”

“It’s akin to requiring someone’s house keys,” said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who calls it “an egregious privacy violation.”

Companies that don’t ask for passwords to vet applicants have taken other steps — such as asking applicants to “friend” human-resource managers.

I can see the desire of HR and hiring managers to see the private information on someone’s Facebook account in order to get a better look at this person and see if he or she is a dimwit who can be trusted with corporate secrets and get a better look at their character, but quite frankly this is absurd. It’s akin to asking you for your Gmail password or, as Orin Kerr says in the above excerpt, your house keys.

Doug Mataconis over at Outside the Beltway makes the argument that this isn’t really a big deal and not something to truly worry about, but I disagree entirely. Doug writes:

I’m not sure, though, that new laws are the answer here. In the end, employers have a right to screen the people they hire as they see fit and to refuse to hire them if there’s something in their background that they believe would not be in the employer’s best interest, or which potentially makes the employee untrustworthy. Barring employers from using this particular method to discover more about their prospective employees is just going to mean they’ll find other ways to do it because, like it or not, what you do online will  impact your job prospects:

The problem with this argument is twofold:

  • You don’t have to get access to someone’s personal life to truly screen them for a position, unless you’re talking national security
  • You’ll open up yourself to a lot of liabilities, because many private accounts have protected classes of information, such as religion, ethnicity, orientation, etc. (I’m not an HR expert, so I don’t know the actual classes, but you get the idea.)

His “editor” (co-blogger at this point, really) Dr. James Joyner also chimes in and says he takes the opposite tack, writing:

UPDATE (James Joyner): I addressed this issue over a year ago, taking the opposite position, in a post titled “Want A Job? Give Us Your Facebook Password.”

While I think the prospective employee has a lower expectation of privacy when applying for a government job, especially a particularly sensitive one like military, intelligence, and law enforcement positions, there are limits. And, I’m sorry, “If you don’t like it, don’t apply to work there” has some limits, too.

Should employers Google the names of prospective employees and perhaps check out their public Facebook and Twitter profiles? For many white collar jobs, I think that’s reasonable. But accessing private information seems out of bounds. Indeed, if they can demand to look at the inside of your Facebook account, why not your Gmail account?

Additionally, as noted in the ensuing discussion, employers may inadvertently run afoul of existing employment law with this practice. It’s illegal for employers to ask prospective employees about their marital status, whether they have children, or any number of other issues. Yet, that information will often be immediately available on one’s Facebook page.

Even though I’m a free market libertarian, there is a limit to what I think employers–whether private, non-profit, or government–should be able to do. Granted, they should have a greater ability to screen candidates and chose who they want to, but trying to sneak into someone’s personal life and violate their privacy is just beyond the pale. What next? Hire investigators to find out who we lost our virginity to? Good grief.

I do agree entirely with what Jazz Shaw of Hot Air said and what Doug Mataconis told me on Twitter, with regards to just plain common sense:

Personally, I think this falls back on an old rule of thumb in the internet age. If you need to work for a living or do anything outside of your online life, you simply can’t take anonymity for granted. Don’t put anything out on the web unless you’d be comfortable having your family, your enemies and – yes – even your employer or prospective boss seeing it. Because odds are, sooner or later, they will.

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/dmataconis/status/183957664714338304"]

However, I’m not convinced that, in twenty years (or even less) this will even matter. By then, just about everyone is going to have had a social network account and have said something stupid on it. There will also be loads of people who saw this crap happening and decided not to do it. So either way, there isn’t going to any point to checking an employee’s Facebook, because everyone has said it. It’ll be as mundane as saying “I like pie.”

This is how society changes and evolves. It is not a static element; it is fluid and continually fluctuating. The problems of 2012 will likely be non-issues in 2032. It is a very worrying and distressing trend for our time right now.

 

Another, slightly tangential topic that annoys me is the growing number of websites that utilize Facebook to provide comments. I find this to be obnoxious and not worth the point. Ostensibly, the reason for this is to improve the commentating quality, because the comment will be associated with someone’s real name. In practice, however, most people are still assholes. Why? Because a lot of people are just assholes in real life. Forcing them to use their real name and picture (which doesn’t even happen all the time; I’ve seen people make Facebook accounts for their dogs, for chrissakes) doesn’t make their comments come off nicer or more intelligent. I also find it would chill a lot of speech; imagine being a young gay man in a militantly conservative Christian household. You would probably not willingly comment on a lot of issues that affect you deeply, because now your parents can track you. “FlufflyBunny0059?” Not so much.

That’s just obnoxious, though, not truly egregious. They’re not trying to get into your account. I, for one, will never require Facebook commenting on my blog, and in fact, I’m not even sure if you can log in with Facebook (I might have deleted that plugin.) I do know that I keep the Twitter and OpenID login available as options, as well as just commenting pseudonomyously. I feel that choice is the best option for all.