Privacy has increasingly become an important topic in the technology world. There are concerns that web sites like Google and Facebook are collecting data to sell to advertisers. There is the worry that the government is using the massive amounts of information passed around the Internet every day to spy on its citizens. But, up until now the threat was lurking in the shadows. Some employers have decided on a more direct approach.
According to an Associated Press story, potential employers are, in increasing numbers, asking their job applicants for their login and password information for social media web sites like Facebook and Twitter. They aren't just asking them to be friends so they can see private profiles. They are actually asking candidates to login to these services on company computers and, in some cases, hand over their login information.
Companies that don't ask for passwords have taken other steps - such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign non-disparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.
Not surprisingly, this is most common among security companies and government agencies that deal with public safety, but the issue of the legality of such a request looms.
As the use of the Internet grows exponentially around the globe, the need for greater security grows with it. For individuals, that means protecting sensitive information via passwords. Unfortunately, many people repeat their passwords to avoid having to remember dozens of different logins. A request for a password for a social network might be no different than asking that person for the password to a bank account.
There's also the issue intruding into a person's private social life. There are a lot of things we do and say in the privacy of our own homes or among friends that would be akin to what we say on social networks, particularly when we have our profiles set so only those we choose can view what we want. And despite privacy complaints against Google and Facebook, both companies have gone to great lengths to allow their users to create multiple layers of privacy for themselves.
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By asking an individual to reveal a password, employers are asking for the keys to a person's intensely private world. Think about notes sent back and forth via Facebook's messaging system or Twitter direct messages. No one can see those but you unless you allow someone else access to your personal account. It would be tantamount to giving a potential employer access to your email.
I'm sure in certain government jobs, the expectation of zero privacy is understood at the time of application. My guess is secret service men and women are going to have every corner of their lives turned upside down before they are allowed to protect the president. It might even make sense that a person be required to friend a superior to provide access to social media profiles if that person happened to be working in law enforcement, for example.
But for private companies to require password-level access to private accounts during the application process is absurd and, if not illegal, must skirt the very edge of the law.
My personal advice for anyone asked to hand over this information to an employer: refuse, flatly. Your employer has as much business poking around your Facebook account as it does reading your mail or rifling through your underwear drawer.