Show us your passwords, please

22 Mar 2012

ITEM: US employers have reportedly been asking prospective job applicants to supply their Facebook passwords as part of the interview process, or to log in to the Facebook page during the interview so private information can be seen.

Not all US employers do this, of course – not as far as we know. But according to widely circulated Associated Press report, some employers are doing just that. It’s worth mentioning that according to AP, the employers in question tend to be public services agencies, particularly those related to law enforcement. So it’s unclear just how widespread the practice is. My guess is, not very much.

Not yet.

But the story does mark an interesting milestone in the evolution of social media. Many employers in many industries – to include telecoms – have already been looking up the public Facebook profiles of current and prospective employees to see if they’re posting anything untoward (work-related or otherwise). Social media users who didn’t realize just how easily accessible their info was have pushed back by learning how to make their profiles friends-only. Now, it seems, employers are considering the option of requiring them to give up their passwords.

The story has sparked a lively debate on the web on whether employers should be allowed to do that. And for employers in this industry and this region who may be considering such a thing, you may wish to know that the general sentiment from employees, civil liberties groups and some state legislatures seems to be “Hell No”.

Which sounds about right.

One could argue that people should know better than to post that kind of stuff on Facebook. But then it’s hard to know what “that kind of stuff” is, or whether it should have any bearing or relevance on one's ability to find gainful employment.

Either way, demanding passwords to personal accounts in the digital era is both a breach of ethics – especially at a time when unemployment in the US is as high as it is and applicants feel less empowered to refuse – and a generally bad idea. What’s to stop an employer from asking for your private email passwords as well? Ethically and functionally, what’s the difference?

Meanwhile, the story also raises the stakes for social media sites to take privacy more seriously – not just by providing adequate privacy tools to help users manage their accounts, but also by not meddling with their settings, inadvertently or otherwise, every time they release a new feature. Privacy tools are fine and well, but no one wants to go to the trouble of locking away data about themselves only to find out the hard way – during a job interview, say – that it’s mysteriously gone public again.

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