Facebook Password Debate Stirs Deep Social Fears

Recent controversy over prospective employers requesting Facebook credentials has dredged up some big social questions.

Debra Donston-Miller

March 27, 2012

5 Min Read
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There has been a lot of fallout from recent stories, including my own, recounting the experiences of prospective employees who were asked to hand over their Facebook credentials during the job interview process.

The dust has far from settled, but so far we've seen proposed legislation, a formal response from Facebook, and general outrage at the idea that a personal Facebook account could be considered fair game for employers--and who knows who or what else. Some have also said that when you break down the events, this issue is nothing but a tempest in a teapot.

It all began with an Associated Press story, picked up by the Boston Globe and many other media outlets, about a New York statistician who was surprised when asked by a job interviewer for his Facebook user name and password. It's not uncommon for prospective employers to check out an applicant's online activity, including presence on social networking sites such as Facebook, but more and more people are using privacy controls to limit access to their pages--thus, the request for user names and passwords. The candidate profiled in the AP story withdrew his application, saying he didn't want to work for a company that would ask for such information.

The incident did not seem to represent a widespread trend, by any means, but it was not isolated, and the very thought of exposing what was never meant to be public information had many people crying foul. Indeed, some compared the request for Facebook credentials to the request for the keys to your home. "I submit that handing over your Facebook (or Twitter or whatever) login ID and password is analogous to handing over the key to your house," said one commenter to my story. "Would we let a potential employer walk around our houses, opening drawers, looking at our letters, checking our diaries, little black books, and contents of our liquor cabinets? I think not."

[ Learn more about how the feds are trying to legislate consumer privacy. See Dear FTC: Privacy Power Trumps Privacy Rules. ]

The tone and nature of that comment is pretty reflective of most that I received on my story. (Indeed, the post has gotten 28 comments to date, which is about 27 more than I typically receive on a story.) Many also noted that any company that would request Facebook credentials is a company that does not "get" social media or security--and is therefore one that you might want to shy away from. "It's pretty ridiculous!" started one comment. "Any company that would request access to your personal Facebook account is seriously behind the times and clearly doesn't understand the role and importance of the social media channels today. ... No one should have to waste their time with some lame organization stuck in the dark ages!"

And so it went.

During the last week, we've also heard directly from Facebook, which came out and warned employers not to ask job applicants for their passwords. Facebook threatened legal action against those who violated its policy against sharing passwords.

In addition, The New York Times reported that Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut were calling on the Justice Department and the Equal Opportunity Commission to begin investigations. The senators want to know, according to The Times, if the practice violates the Stored Communications Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: "Those two acts, respectively, prohibit intentional access to electronic information without authorization and intentional access to a computer without authorization to obtain information." The senators said they were writing a bill to fill in any gaps not covered by current laws, according to the article.

Amid the outrage and the call for action, there were many who said this issue was much ado about nothing--that the requests for Facebook credentials represented a few clumsy missteps by socially backward organizations, or even legitimate steps in the vetting of candidates for positions that would require a high security clearance.

I think one of the underlying reasons that this story has struck such a nerve is that people have quickly settled into this new social society, but the rules have largely yet to be written--or are being written on the fly.

Further, the implications of a life lived on social media can't be fully understood. The stupid things I did when I was younger (and there were many) have not been documented (that I know of) in running commentary a la Facebook updates or in photographs or videos that could be shared and tagged beyond my control. But what about today's 18-year-olds? Will any youthful transgressions come back to haunt them five years from now when they start applying for their first real jobs? Should they?

I just heard a story on NPR, based on research from the University of Waterloo, about how people with low self-esteem tend to post updates on Facebook that could alienate them from other people. Could our personalities, or even just having some tough luck bemoaned on social media, cause prospective employers or colleges, or even financial institutions vetting our suitability for a loan, use this information against us?

So far, I think, we have felt safe in the answer that, no, they can't use any of this against us because it is private--because we have chosen not to expose it publicly. The idea that we might be asked or possibly even required to essentially open up our diaries is unsettling, to say the least. It will be interesting to see where all of this leads.

Follow Deb Donston-Miller on Twitter at @debdonston.

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