Over the past month or so, news outlets and the blogosphere have been bursting at the seams with stories of potential employers asking applicants for their Facebook passwords. The issue first made headlines back on March 6th when Bob Sullivan broke the news on the MSNBC Red Tape Blog. The story was quickly picked up and a follow-up published the same day by Time Magazine’s Kayla Webley and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kathleen Pender.
The story was picked up by the Drudge Report and went viral and for good reason – privacy matters to people. At a time when the nation continues to have abnormally high unemployment, the need to maintain one’s privacy is running smack dab into the desire to seek employment without having to give one’s privacy rights away.
The case that started all of the hub-bub originated from a report about complaints related to the Maryland Department of Corrections’ hiring practices, which was a focal point of the Sullivan piece in early March where he reported, “Previously, applicants were asked to surrender their user name and password, but a complaint from the ACLU stopped that practice last year. While submitting to a Facebook review is voluntary, virtually all applicants agree to it out of a desire to score well in the interview, according Maryland ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann.”
So What can employers legally do?
Generally, employers are not allowed to ask for your social networking usernames and passwords. Like everything, there are exceptions, which are largely related to the type of job or organization you are applying t0. The more closely related to security, which might include law enforcement or top-secret government work, the more latitude an employer may have to request such access.
Employers are finding ways around this, at least temporarily by “shoulder surfing”, which is asking a candidate if they would mind logging into their Facebook account and surfing while the interview looks over their shoulder. Martha White points out in her March 9 Time Magazine blog posting that, “it is legal for a prospective employer, during a job interview, to insist that you log into your Facebook page and then click through your “friends only”. However, this too is quickly becoming a target for privacy rights activists as well as the ACLU alike.
Facebook comes to the rescue
In a surprising turn of events, on March 23rd, Facebook warned employers that it would take legal action against companies that ask job applicants for passwords to the social network, saying such a request violates its terms of service.
Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan issued the warning in the wake of a published report that companies and governmental agencies were increasingly asking job applicants for access to their accounts as part of a pre-employment screening process.
“Facebook takes your privacy seriously,” Egan wrote in a statement posted on Facebook. “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.”