Pre-emptive strikes against social-media snooping


This week, it became illegal in Illinois for an employer to ask a prospective employee for his or her online social network password as part of a job application. It seemed like a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

Boy, were we wrong.

Illinois and California opened the new year by becoming the fifth and sixth states to prohibit such demands, joining Michigan, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. Those four states took pre-emptive action last year to thwart social-media snoopers.

Is it a widespread practice? Probably not. Could it become one? Probably so.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says it’s a concern. “Some employers argue that access to personal accounts is needed to protect proprietary information or trade secrets and to prevent the employer from being exposed to legal liabilities,” the organization wrote recently.

On the flip side, the NCSL wrote, other employers consider requiring access to personal accounts to be an invasion of employee privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t like it. ACLU attorney Catherine Crump says it’s an invasion of privacy.

“People are entitled to their private lives,” Crump wrote on the ACLU’s website. “You’d be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside. It’s equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person’s private social media account.”

Social media minders point out that sharing passwords is prohibited in the terms of service of many of the major networks. They also note that the entities that gain access to the social media accounts may become liable for the content in them.

Like so many privacy concerns in the Internet age, show-me-your-password is a fluid issue. But it should be clear by now that nothing put online can be considered 100 percent private.

At the very least, everyone from college admissions officers and employers to prospective suitors will comb through Facebook and Twitter postings, pictures and profiles. At the extreme end, hackers are seeking passwords and government agencies can — sometimes without warrants — gain access to your Web history.

Young people born to the Internet aren’t as concerned about keeping things to themselves as preceding generations are — until they want jobs. Knowing that achieving a certain public image might be important at some point, creative young people have learned to hack into the social media system to create phony profiles.

Instead of Suzy Slacker you get Suzy Citizen, whose profile reveals a young woman devoted to classical music, public service and kitty rescue. Jason Jerk becomes Jason Jobseeker, a skilled and hard-working young man with a passion for volunteer work.

A survey in November of social media users in the United States and the United Kingdom found that 30 percent of men and 15 percent of women had created alternative online personas. JWT, which formerly was J. Walter Thompson and is one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, conducted the survey.

For every tit there is a tat, so employers who don’t want to be snowed by idealized profiles or stopped by privacy walls ask for passwords. Some companies are more devious, asking applicants to “friend” human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during a job interview.

Workers also have been required to sign agreements after being hired that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.

We can’t argue with Illinois or the other states that are trying to prevent this practice before it becomes more prevalent. It goes without saying that a company should want to hire the best person for a job. Hiring that person involves skill and a certain degree of risk.

But there is enough public information available, from schools, police, credit agencies and such, that gaining access to a person’s Facebook or Twitter account by using a private password is just not necessary. It’s invasive.

People shouldn’t have to choose between privacy and technology. The same standards of privacy that are followed offline also should be followed online.

There really are some things that are nobody’s business.