A Blatant Violation of Privacy


By Samuel Greengard

It's disturbing--and creepy--to learn that a growing number of employers are asking job applicants for their personal passwords to social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The Associated Press (AP) recently reported that during in-person interviews, some hiring managers click onto these sites and, if a profile is blocked, ask the interviewee for their password. Some employers also request e-mail passwords.

This followed a disturbing story on MSNBC.com about colleges and government agencies demanding passwords.

There's no question that it's wise to hire people with character and integrity. But employers already have powerful tools at their disposal, including background checks that take place within seconds. A growing number of companies also tap behavioral interviewing techniques that are extremely successful at identifying whether people are a good fit.

So it's difficult to fathom how anyone can justify peering into a person's private account and claim that it isn't a blatant violation of privacy. What's next? A look at applicants' income tax returns and all documents and files residing on a PC or phone? Video cameras installed in homes and tracking devices to know where people go and what they do?

Apparently, Illinois and Maryland are weighing laws that specifically forbid this type of, well, data rape. Not to be outwitted, some devious hiring managers circumvent potential legal technicalities by sending friend requests to applicants or by asking them to log on from a company computer. The AP reports that public agencies, particularly those looking to fill law enforcement positions, are the biggest proponents of this tactic.

Some who have encountered this hardball approach say they have had no choice but to consent because they needed the job. Others have walked out and told interviewers that they don't want to work at a company or agency that would use such tactics.

Amid the growing ruckus, Facebook posted a statement on its Website saying that it would consider legal action "where appropriate." The company's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, noted: "This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user's friends."

One can only hope that Facebook--even if it's merely protecting its own financial interests (fewer users and posts = less advertising dollars)--will short-circuit these password abusers. Meanwhile, organizations engaging in this activity might want to consider what will happen when the job market tilts back in favor of workers. Here's a hint: Talent will head elsewhere!

Sadly, our ability to misuse technology grows daily.