The recent Washington Post story on prospective employees being asked for their Facebook passwords triggered a firestorm of vociferous reactions across the net. The revelation that employers are asking for both social network and email passwords as part of their investigations into the “character” of their prospective employees is certainly troubling. Calling it an “unreasonable invasion of privacy,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) began to draft legislation to outlaw the practice of employees asking for private login information. Most commenters have vehemently criticized the policy, decrying how businesses involved in this form of coercion are undesirable employers - even though there are no statistics to prove how common the practice is. Regardless of the magnitude of the public reaction, the prospect that this policy will be changed at any time in the near future is rather dim.
Privacy when the Wolves Are at the Door?
While it may be facile to state that you wouldn’t want to work at any company that engages in this practice, that statement reflects an essential failure to comprehend the state of the current U.S. job market. There are millions of unemployed who are in the dire state reflected in Ronnie Dunn’s country hit Cost Of Livin’:
The bank has started callin'
And the wolves are at my door
When they weigh the potential of a solid job offer versus not being able to pay the rent and feed the kids, most concerns about social network privacy violations are going to take a back seat. The best possible alternative from a prospective employee’s viewpoint would be for this policy to be thoroughly eliminated, but from the employer’s standpoint it would seem that they have a right to discover if an applicant’s prior behavior demonstrates a history of poor character, employer disparagement or worse.
Facebook to Take Legal Action... Not Really
Running counter to its reputation as a notorious privacy colander, Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan stated that the company “takes your privacy seriously” and that they will protect that privacy “by initiating legal action.” Facebook quickly amended that broad statement by stating that they “do not have any immediate plans to take legal action against any specific employers.” Given the lightning fast dilution of their previous statement it is not surprising that their “action” now seems to be limited to making “it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.”
Would Facebook Cut off Walmart’s Accounts?
The commitment behind that phrase falls apart readily upon analysis. What Facebook is essentially stating is that if an employer solicits a Facebook password they will be in violation of their own Facebook EULA. And exactly which account? If Walmart was found guilty of this practice would the Facebook accounts of everyone who lists the company as their employer be cut off? Or just the Walton family’s? Would Facebook really chop out the Walmart employees that, according to a Venture Beat study, receive the highest advertiser bid prices on a per category basis (other than Facebook’s own employees) right on the eve of its IPO? It’s actually worse than that, as the inclusion of violations to include “sharing” means that if a Facebook user gives their potential employer access to their account, then they are the ones who might lose their account. As if the victimization of a “password or job” scenario isn’t enough, anyone acceding to the employer’s demands is allegedly going to get tossed off the social network.
Facebook is updating the Shakespearean telling of a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is quite unlikely that Facebook will take any type of concrete action against anyone, employer or employee. In the vacuum where the millions of job-hunting Facebook users await government legislation that may be years away, these egregious employer violations will continue unchecked. Do you now see why it was a really bad idea to upload that photo of you falling down drunk at that Cancun beach bar... or that post where you pillory your manager... or that one boasting about how much petty cash you’ve pocketed... or...
Update 3/26/12: Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) recently joined his colleague Blumenthal in asking the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate if federal laws are being violated by employers coercing prospective hires into revealing their personal online passwords. Sen. Schumer stated that "employers have no right to ask job applicants for their house keys or to read their diaries, why should they be able to ask them for their Facebook passwords?" If it is found that employers have violated the U.S. Stored Communication Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the legal liabilities could be severe.