COLUMNS

  /  

April 23, 2012

Personnel firewall

Employers demanding Facebook passwords crosses a long-blurring line.

Jobs and Facebook: Two things that most readers can agree are (or have recently become) a necessity for remaining relevant in today’s society.

But privacy concerns have beset Zuckerberg’s online behemoth since its launch in 2004. Back in its Ivy League days, those concerns largely focused on the fact that the site was founded by hacking Harvard’s online housing network. Since then, the problems have grown more complex, and though the site has been quick to answer common queries like, “How do I know what I’m sharing?” and “Is it better to post these nudes on my wall or my timeline?”, there are still scores of privacy issues over which Facebook simply has no control.

Topping the list of such concerns in recent years has been the topic of teen password sharing. In a 2011 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, researchers found that 30 percent of teens report sharing their passwords with “a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend.” Like the sharing of locker combination for kids or swapping apartment keys for adults, password sharing has become “a sign of trust and intimacy” for teens: a signal that this isn’t just another two-week relationship, but a true-love-together-forever thing.

But teens will always be teens (read: stupid). If not passwords, then locker combinations; if not sexts, then fake ID-laden pub crawls. On the whole, teens are far more impulsive than adults—especially teens “in love,” whose impulsiveness is at least twice that. Multiplied by 10. Squared.

So what, then, gives employers the right to force these same juvenile standards on disproportionately low-income working adults?

Employers have begun requesting social media log-in information from their applicants and current employees. Notably, these aren’t top-notch, mega-high-profile institutions like the CIA or the President’s Secret Service, for which applicants are repeatedly primed to expect to sacrifice some privacy. Instead, these are employers like the Division of Corrections: They’re asking jail guards, janitors, security guards, and corrections officers like Robert Collins, who was asked to give his employer, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, his Facebook log-in information as part of recertification following a four-month leave of absence he took after his mother’s death. Like Collins’s, these are almost exclusively jobs paying just over half ($29,000) of the national income average ($47,000)—occupations that attract applicants financially unable to reject a job offer even if it would infringe upon their privacy rights, however unfair and unreasonable such infringement may be.

This weekend, Collins’s home state of Maryland became the first and only state to ban the practice, though many other states are currently considering similar legislation. But it’s a largely tentative “consideration”; Illinois, for example, has been “considering” its own variant of this bill since May 2011. Having passed its three readings in the House, it is now on its first reading in the Senate, making now the perfect time to tell your state senator how you feel about it.

This form of implicit but powerful class discrimination speaks to a greater, equally underpublicized issue that has an impact on anyone with any sort of social media presence past, present, or future. Though password demanding has not yet become a common practice, social network background checks have; some 91 percent of employers report that they already conduct “screenings” of applicants’ profiles, the most common ones being those on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

The fact that an entire state institution didn’t see a problem with asking for applicants’ passwords is just the tip of the iceberg. From bosses who request their personnel as “friends” (good luck rejecting or “ignoring” that one) to the legions of companies requiring staff to tweet/post/update their followers about their work with them (“I’m working on a new spread for Name of Company! #exciting”), all signs point to a much bigger concern that we should have about the turn that the inescapable work-life relationship is taking in our society.

It’s not that the work-life divide is dwindling; that’s old news, and for the most part, inevitable. But work is now inviting itself over and crashing the party.

LinkedIn was supposed to bridge the gap between work and social networking. In the realm of communication, business-oriented platforms for conferencing are being left for the low cost, ease, and accessibility of the social platforms provided by Skype or Google.

But what if I don’t want my employer to know when I’m online? Or to know that I just listened to 149 dubstep songs, or took this photo at this concert, or follow Courtney Stodden, or read a Washington Post piece about hating my job, or overestimate my potential for witty one-liners on a daily basis? Kudos, of course, to Facebook’s new custom, case-by-case share settings. But they’re just not enough. The only solution to the underlying issue is to not do any of these things.

In numerous interviews about his experience, Robert Collins has stated that the job itself wasn’t the reason that he gave in to giving his password: It was pure and simple pressure. “It seemed like my compliance was compulsory,” he said.

However, employers shouldn’t be exploiting their unique economic leverage to violate their employees’ privacy and to dictate their behavior outside of the workplace. People at all levels of society should be able to like their jobs and “like” whatever they want on Facebook too.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year in the College majoring in economics.

MOST READ