Privacy: A thing of the past?

April 22, 2012 | 11 a.m.

Employers begin asking potential employees for Facebook passwords.

Views | Jenny Hudalla

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Employers are taking personal information from the social networking site.

If I remember anything from high school, it’s the mantra “don’t give out your password.” Teachers and guidance counselors pounded it into my head so vehemently that I would need a crowbar to remove it. So when I learned that my future employers may ask me to hand over my Facebook username and password for their viewing pleasure, I was shocked, to say the least.

Unfortunately, the present state of the economy has driven people to do just about anything to land a job. After the social networking boom, employers began to use websites like Facebook and Twitter to screen potential job candidates based on their public profiles. However, with more and more users setting their profiles to private, employers are now asking for personal usernames and passwords to access accounts from the user’s point of view.

Many Americans – myself included – feel that asking employees to reveal private information is highly manipulative, if not illegal. It’s one thing to view a public profile to find out more about a potential employee, but it’s another thing entirely to sift through the gold mine of personal information in a user’s private account.

According to Facebook’s chief privacy officer Erin Egan in an official statement, “This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.”

Inside of a Facebook account is delicate information such as race, religion and sexual orientation, all of which are protected by federal law. Moreover, the messages sent via Facebook are no different than messages sent via mail, which is private property meant to be shielded from prying eyes.

Perhaps the emergence of this tactic is a testament to the epidemic of laziness that has swept over today’s Americans. It seems that employers would rather judge potential employees’ competence by scrolling through their virtual social lives than determine their qualifications based on face-to-face interaction. Few seem to realize that they also put themselves in legally hazardous positions, as potential employees have the right to sue if they feel they have been denied a job based on personal characteristics or beliefs, which the employer is likely to stumble upon on the social networking sites.

While there have been relatively few occurrences of this breach of privacy nationwide, Facebook representatives have made it clear that they will not hesitate to get involved if the situation worsens, as it is against the site’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit account passwords.

“We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges,” said Egan in a statement on March 23.

Regardless of Facebook’s future actions, users should take it upon themselves to defend their privacy. While refusing a request from a potential employer may seem inadvisable, waiving the right to privacy in the workplace may open doors for further invasion. Asking employees to open up their private accounts for examination is like asking to thumb through their mail or tap their phone line – punishable as a federal offense. Privacy is not a thing of the past; it is a human right. 

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