It raises questions about the legality of using social networks for employment screenings, since profiles often contain personal information, including age, sex, religion, marital status and sexual orientation — details that employers are barred from asking under federal law.
Imagine going to a job interview and being asked for the keys to your home, or permission to tap your phone. Most of us would probably turn right around and walk out — once we picked our jaws up off the floor.
Yet, while the mere suggestion of such an egregious privacy violation seems absurd, it is actually not that different from what is going on at a growing number of companies around the country: employers demanding Facebook login information from job applicants ... or even current employees.
Granted, the Internet is a public forum, and we have probably all taken advantage of the astounding amount of information readily available out there by Googling ourselves or someone we know — whether it is an old friend, a new love or, yes, a potential employee.
But there is a big difference between conducting a public search and logging into someone’s personal account. And it raises questions about the legality of using social networks for employment screenings, since profiles often contain personal information, including age, sex, religion, marital status and sexual orientation — details that employers are barred from asking under federal law.
Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut recently announced they were asking the Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to launch investigations into whether such practices are, in fact, illegal. They are also drafting legislation designed to beef up existing law.
“In an age where more and more of our personal information — and our private social interactions — are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public and protect personal information from their would-be employers,” Schumer said in a statement. “This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence.”
“There is no reason for this invasive and unreasonable intrusion into personal privacy,” Blumenthal told the New York Daily News.
State lawmakers are also weighing in on the issue. Bills that would prohibit employers from requesting social media passwords are currently working their way through the legislative process in Illinois and Maryland. California, Massachusetts and Michigan lawmakers are now crafting similar legislation as well.
A legal battle is already brewing in the Great Lake State over the password privacy matter. Kimberly Hester, a grade-school teacher’s aide in Michigan, was fired when she refused to give her login information to a school administrator after a parent in the school complained about a photo Hester had jokingly posted, which, according to local news station WSBT, showed a pair of shoes and pants around the ankles.
“It was very mild, no pornography,” Hester told the station.
Hester, who will argue her case during an arbitration hearing next month, isn’t alone. Facebook says it has received a “distressing increase” in the number of users reporting they had been asked for login information in recent months.
“This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends,” Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, wrote on the site’s privacy section. “It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.”
In addition, Egan pointed out, sharing one’s Facebook password is also a violation of the site’s terms of service. While I doubt Facebook would kick any personal user off because of that, it is a good reminder of the cardinal rule of password-protected accounts: never share your password with anyone. Ever.
However, that is easier said than done, especially for the millions of Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. It’s much harder to stand up for one’s privacy rights when doing so could mean bills go unpaid, or there isn’t enough food to put on the table ... but that is exactly what some employers are counting on, isn’t it?
City editor Amy Gehrt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.