Facebook, lawmakers warn employers not to demand passwords

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Mar 23, 2012 7:06pm EDT

An illustration picture shows the log-on screen for the website Facebook, in Munich February 2, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

An illustration picture shows the log-on screen for the website Facebook, in Munich February 2, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Dalder

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Facebook and lawmakers have warned employers against requesting Facebook passwords while screening job applicants, a controversial practice that underscores the blurring distinction between personal and professional lives the era of social media.

The practice has reportedly grown more commonplace as companies increasingly regard profiles - or embarrassing photos from wild nights out - as windows into a prospective employee's character.

On Friday, Facebook Inc's Chief Privacy Officer, Erin Egan, posted a note warning that the social networking company could "initiate legal action" against employers that demand Facebook passwords.

Also, lawmakers in several states and in Washington said they would introduce bills to prohibit companies from vetting employees by demanding access to private accounts.

Leland Yee, a California state senator, told Reuters on Friday he introduced legislation that would prohibit companies in the state from soliciting Facebook passwords from job applicants. The Associated Press reported that lawmakers in Illinois and Maryland were also considering similar moves.

"Employers can't ask in the course of an interview your sexual orientation, your age, and yet social media accounts may have that information," Yee said.

"Employers have legitimate questions about a person's job performance, but they can get that information the regular way, without cutting corners and violating people's privacy."

Egan said in a post on Facebook's website published on Friday that the social networking company has seen in recent months "a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people's Facebook profiles.

"We don't think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don't think it's the right thing to do.

"But it also may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating. For example, if an employer sees on Facebook that someone is a member of a protected group (e.g. over a certain age, etc.) that employer may open themselves up to claims of discrimination if they don't hire that person."

OPEN UP YOUR MAIL

The issue bubbled up this week after the Associated Press reported that employers are increasingly asking to look at content job applicants have uploaded to their digital accounts, regardless of whether that content is shared or not.

In the case of the Maryland Department of Corrections, job applicants were asked to browse through their own Facebook accounts with an interviewer present, the AP reported.

The ACLU, which previously criticized the Maryland state government's online vetting, called the practice "an invasion of privacy" in a statement this week.

"You'd be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside," said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump.

"It's equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person's private social media account."

Facebook's outspoken stance on the issue cast it in an unfamiliar but welcome role.

Hundreds of users cheered Egan, applauding a company that has been repeatedly criticized for bungling privacy issues over the years, especially when changing privacy settings without duly notifying users.

By Friday afternoon, close to a thousand users had "Liked" Egan's post and many users left positive comments.

Yet there were still a few cynics.

"FB you're talking out of both sides of your mouth," wrote Facebook user Ron Carrubba. "Now how about fixing your other privacy issues in the application itself?"

(Editing by Andre Grenon)

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Comments (5)
SilentBoy741 wrote:
If asked to give out your Facebook user ID and password during an interview, just answer, “No sir/madam, I won’t do that. I know that giving my log-on credentials to anyone else would be a breach of the computer security and ethics policies that I’m sure this company has in place, just as if I’m hired here, I wouldn’t give out my password to your system to anyone that asked for it, no matter what the reason. So I’m sure that question was just a test of my security awarenes and professional ethic for the company that I may be working for. That’s what it was, issn’t it?” Then smile politely and wait for their answer…

Mar 23, 2012 7:05pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
johannesg wrote:
Agreed, SilentBoy, and nice humorous twist. As someone who has interviewed well in excess of 1,000 job candidates over the years, this just smacks of poor skills on the part of the interviewers. Having worked in large-company data security systems for years, I’m shocked that corporations have grown so arrogant as to assume they can demand restricted content from third-party hosted systems. What else ought they to look into whilst screening? “Please hand over your mobile phone so we can read your texts” ? At some point the luxury of being able to make such requests butts firmly against the notion of public/private separation. As an employer, I do my best to keep track of how my staff are getting along in their daily lives by *gasp* talking to them and with sincerity listening to their concerns. A good interviewer ought to be able to accomplish the same without resorting to such underhanded tricks.

Mar 23, 2012 12:49am EDT  --  Report as abuse
alecwest wrote:
I think the solution is much easier, especially since we live in world with multiple browsers (each with separate cookies) and free email addresses. Simply set up two Facebook accounts … one where everything posted is “sweetness and light” … and one where you let your hair (but not your identity) down. Then, when an employer asks you for your Facebook information, give them the information for the “sweetness and light” account – so they can peruse photos you took at the zoo, notes you’ve written about charitable work, positive reviews of your favorite PG movies, yada yada yada (until they go to sleep, hehe).

Mar 24, 2012 12:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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