If your employer or a potential employer asked you to hand over the keys to your house so they could search your possessions looking for something unspecified, I suspect you would be a little surprised and not a little outraged. Well, over the last few months there has been a significant number of reports of employers and colleges doing the digital equivalent of asking for your house keys by requesting Facebook passwords from employees, applicants and students.
For example, a widely reported Associated Press news story covered how a statistician, Justin Bassett, applied for a job in New York and, because the interviewer couldn't see his private profile on Facebook, asked him to divulge his login information. Bassett not only refused, he withdrew his application saying "he didn't want to work for a company that would seek such personal information."
Well done, Mr. Bassett, but, alas, given the current unemployment rate, not everyone can afford to stand up for their rights.
In some cases, instead of asking for account passwords, employers ask to "shoulder surf." According to MSNBC, "In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state's Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall."
The least intrusive but still an unacceptable form of employee or student monitoring is for the employer or school administration to demand that employees accept Facebook friend requests from management or their representatives so the subject's social activity can be observed.
What I can't figure out is who comes up with these policies? Who, sitting in their office, pondering the issues of potential staff or student misbehavior, thinks to themselves, "That's it! We need to be as intrusive and coercive as possible!" You have to wonder what comes next ... mandatory cavity searches on entering and leaving work? Regular home searches? Cameras in employees' and students' dwellings?
I suspect the reason these various organizations are so willing to over-reach in the digital world is that it's easy, and obviously the "group think" driving their decision-making lacks any ethical or moral basis.
Real world monitoring is hard to do, it's expensive, and there are laws that prohibit such invasive intelligence gathering, while monitoring social media is very easy to do, comparatively cheap, and there's little in the way of legislation to stop it.
This situation is wrong in so many ways and thus it was with great pleasure I read that on Friday, April 27, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) introduced the "Social Networking Online Protection Act" or SNOPA which is similar to a bill passed in Maryland last month.
SNOPA would make it illegal for an employer or school to require you to provide your Facebook, Twitter, or other social network passwords during the hiring process or as a term of your employment, and the penalty for violations would be $10,000 per incident.
Needless to say, SNOPA is a work in progress . Getting the bill passed could be tricky and campaigns in support of SNOPA will emerge so that, we, the great unwashed, can show our support for what will be ground-breaking legislation that, for once, will protect rather than weaken our digital rights. This is a bill that you have to support if you believe in your right to privacy online.
Gibbs is private in Ventura, Calif. Contact him discretely at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter (@quistuipater) and on Facebook (quistuipater).