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I have set my Facebook account to Fort Knox levels of privacy. Not that I have anything salacious (or even interesting) to hide, but potential employers probably do not need to know how often I post about Glee. Much to my alarm, however, such precautionary steps are no longer enough to fend off prying eyes: some employers have begun to ask job applicants for their personal Facebook login information as part of their vetting process. This enables employers to see information that individuals have chosen to keep private from the public at large, and it allows them to scrutinize private social networking behavior before making employment decisions.
Some have suggested that such requests constitute an invasion of privacy, especially because they are made without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. On the one hand, this practice occurs most frequently in public agencies, especially those relating to law enforcement. Arguably, there is a strong public interest underlying the background checks of 911 dispatchers and police officers. However, does this mean that employers (often the government) should have a limitless right to undertake a fishing expedition into one’s private social media accounts? Additionally, there is an increased risk that arbitrary factors, such as political beliefs and family life, will seep into hiring decisions.
Moreover, while applicants may voluntarily refuse to provide their passwords, many feel pressured to comply by today’s rough-and-tumble economy. One job candidate noted that “If you need to put food on the table for your three kids, you can’t afford to stand up for your belief.” Like a criminal defendant who refuses to testify, withholding login information gives the impression that you have something to hide – something more sinister than a few embarrassing posts featuring Barbra Streisand lyrics.
In response to this growing practice, two members of Congress have introduced a bill to ban requiring job applicants, employees or students to provide social networking information. Under the proposed bill, the Social Networking Online Protection Act, employers may not use online content to “discriminate or deny employment to individuals, nor punish them for refusing to volunteer the information.” This proposal highlights the need for Congress to further address the meaning of digital privacy in social media and to articulate the rights of Facebook users. Should employers be allowed to demand login information as a condition of employment? Should your interactions with friends on Facebook even be a factor in hiring decisions?
One of the most important questions is whether individuals should have any expectation of privacy in information they knowingly post on their profiles. Even with high privacy settings, it seems unreasonable to expect that you have any right to privacy in something you post in a public forum. When it comes to social networking websites, “online privacy” just may be a contradiction in terms.
– Joanna Collins
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