Discussing rules and boundaries can be tricky in the digital age, because things change so rapidly. Lines become blurred, and what was once black and white fades to shades of gray.
One line that is not blurry, however, is the one that is crossed when employers or public agencies demand that job applicants turn over their passwords to Facebook and other social media sites.
Some employers have been doing this. Others have asked applicants to log in to their profiles during interviews so the prospective employer could snoop around. Others have asked employees to “friend” a member of the personnel department so the company can monitor their activity.
We are not naive. Most of us know very well that we should not post anything online that we wouldn’t want our boss or our grandmother to see.
If a prospective employer types our name into a search engine and reviews whatever content he finds, that is fair game.
The content in our Facebook account is different, however.
This is not necessarily public content, because we can control, to a certain extent, who sees the information.
Prospective employers are likely treading on thin ice from a legal perspective in these cases.
There are certain things about which, by law, employers are not allowed to ask.
For example, a perspective employer cannot legally ask a job applicant his age. Some people include this information on their profiles.
It is not only the applicant’s personal information that is at risk. If an employer demands the password to a person’s Facebook account, this would also give the employer access to all of that person’s “friends” friends who may have set privacy settings to allow only their “friends” to see their personal data, and who never gave their permission to some unknown voyeuristic freak in a corporate office to check it out.
Just because information exists does not mean prospective employers have a right to gain access.
There are all sorts of things that we might post on our wall to share with our friends that we wouldn’t necessarily share with a prospective employer.
This is not because there is anything illegal or immoral about it. It is simply a different audience.
And what about information that our friends post on our wall?
Suppose, for example, a friend posts a photo on our wall that depicts us wearing a funny hat at a birthday party.
There is nothing illegal about silly hats. Just think of the royal wedding.
It might be a perfectly fine hat for a birthday party among friends, but it may not be the sort of attire we would choose to wear to a job interview.
Where does it stop? If employers are allowed to extort passwords to social media sites, will they be allowed to do the same for e-mail accounts? Voice mail boxes?
Should employers be able to confiscate our iPods so they can evaluate the music we enjoy?
Should they be able to take our Kindles to see if we are reading any novels or periodicals to which they might object?
Should they have access to our iPads to see if we take silly photos on our family vacations?
Are employers going to start demanding to see our medical records to see if there is anything there to cause them concern?
Are we going to allow prospective employers to demand access to our closets so they can assess our housekeeping skills? Will we have to turn over the maintenance records for our cars so they can see if we change our oil on a regular basis?
There is a mountain of information about all of us floating around the Webosphere. Retailers already know more about us than some of our closest friends do. They know where and when we shop, what we look at, and what we buy.
We might lie about our weight on our driver’s license, but our Big Brothers and Sisters lurking in the digital undergrowth know what size we really wear.
Any company with which we do business may collect information, and may share, sell, or trade this information with others.
The amount of information that is collected about us every day is alarming.
That does not mean, however, that we should abandon any expectation of privacy.
In the post-9/11 world, we have been asked to give up some of our freedoms in the name of security, but we do not have to give up all of our freedom.
One might ask why a person would agree to turn over his passwords to a prospective employer.
People who are looking for work may be desperate to find a job any job and they may feel compelled to do what an employer asks out of fear of being passed over for other candidates.
We cannot allow employers to victimize people who are in this vulnerable position.
Doing so is unethical, probably illegal, and just plain wrong.
Employers and public agencies that demand access to social media profiles and other information that is not public, and use it to screen employees, are casting too wide a net.
Invasion of privacy is still wrong, and should not be condoned.