Mar 27 2012

The Battle Over Your Facebook Account: Should Employers Have Access?

Debate swirls as reports emerge of employers requesting Facebook login credentials from prospective employees.

As social media increasingly plays a role in our online and offline identities, there’s a growing debate over how much access employers should have when it comes to the social media activity of prospective and current employees.

There are numerous stories of workers losing their jobs over things posted on Facebook and Twitter, but an Associated Press story recently fanned the flames. The report featured Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician, who turned down a job opportunity after he was asked to hand over his Facebook login credentials during the interview.

That story prompted a flurry of responses from bloggers, politicians and even Facebook itself.

A blog post from Lawyers.com shed light on the legal pitfalls companies could face in trying to peek into employee Facebook accounts:

It’s difficult to make a blanket judgment because every state is different and social media and Internet law is still evolving. However, in general, employers are on very shaky ground demanding access to employee or applicants’ personal social media accounts.

“You can think of several potential legal pitfalls employers can fall into quite easily,” says John Barr, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in Richmond, Va. To name a few, companies could be in danger of violating various anti-eavesdropping acts and privacy acts, as well as the illegal surveillance provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, depending on how they monitored the information in your account.

Apparently Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is also in agreement. Blumenthal announced he was working on a bill to prevent employers from demanding Facebook credentials, telling POLITICO:

"I am very deeply troubled by the practices that seem to be spreading voraciously around the country," Blumenthal said in an interview. He added that an "employer has a lot of ways to find out information" about potential new employees.

Erin Egan, the chief privacy officer for Facebook, added more weight to the debate with an official statement on the matter:

In recent months, we’ve seen a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people’s Facebook profiles or private information. This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability.

The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidences of employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords. If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account, or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends. We have worked really hard at Facebook to give you the tools to control who sees your information.

This messiness is to be expected, since many of us are still trying to sort out how social media fits in our lives. But companies will want to tread carefully, as the potential backlash from an aggressive social media shakedown could drive away qualified candidates and land the company in legal hot water.

If employers wouldn’t expect prospective or current employees to hand over passwords to their personal e-mail accounts, should they really expect people to hand over the login information to their social media accounts? Or should employers be given all available tools to vet candidates as thoroughly as possible?

The struggle over online and offline identities brings up a question we should all consider: Do we own our data or does our data own us?