As social media becomes more institutionalized in society, companies looking for new employees continually look to social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to learn more about their job candidates. But since many users -- particularly on Facebook -- have made their profiles private to only their selected friends and networks, some employers now require their applicants to submit their Facebook login information.
But is this acceptable, or even legal? Orin Kerr, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at George Washington University, doesn't think so.
It's akin to requiring someone's house keys, Kerr said. [It's] an egregious privacy violation.
You'd be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside, said Catherine Crump, an attorney with the ACLU. It's equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person's private social media account.
On sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, millions of users willingly offer private information about their interests, strengths, abilities, and preferences to share with their friends and colleagues. These networks act as unique windows into a person's life. You can see their pictures, their history of work, who their friends and connections are, and more. And since social networks have already compiled the information that potential employers would look for, companies figure, Why don't we just cull applicant information from Facebook?
When a company requires Facebook login information, candidates can either allow their social accounts to be scrutinized and reviewed, or they can look for another job opportunity. And in this harsh job climate, most applicants feel like they have no choice. They simply can't afford to say no.
Justin Bassett, who once withdrew his application from a job that asked for his Facebook login, says he was lucky to be able to turn down a gig, while most people cannot.
I think asking for account login credentials is regressive, Bassett said. If you need to put food on the table for your three kids, you can't afford to stand up for your belief.
While employers will disagree, arguing that social networks give them the best possible impression of their candidates, requiring users to provide their personal login information is a serious violation of privacy. Asking applicants to volunteer private information when they need a job borders on coercion.
Luckily, two U.S. senators are standing up for the little guys. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumental (D-CT) have already asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate claims of employers asking their candidates for login information, arguing that this practice would violate the Stored Communications Act (SCA) or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). The SCA protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures online, while the CFAA disallows intentional access to private computer information without authorization.
In an age where more and more of our personal information - and our private social interactions - are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public and protect personal information from their would-be employers, Sen. Schumer said. This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence.
Sen. Leland Yee (D-CA) said he also plans to sponsor a bill that would stop employers from asking for a candidate's social network passwords, an act he calls completely unacceptable.
The bill comes after a growing number of businesses and public agencies around the country are asking job seekers and workers for their Facebook and Twitter account information and passwords, Sen. Yee said, adding that his bill would also stop interviewers from telling applicants to log in and print out their social media pages.
Besides the politicians and activists that don't believe employers should behave in this manner, what does Facebook think? The company offered a statement:
We don't think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don't think it's the right thing to do, Facebook said. While we do not have any immediate plans to take legal action against any specific employers, we look forward to engaging with policy makers and other stakeholders, to help better safeguard the privacy of our users.
Facebook added that if an employer sees a candidate is part of a specific group, the company opens itself up to discrimination claims if they decide not to hire that person. Given that a person's gender, race, religion and age are included on a Facebook profile -- all of which are protected by federal employment law -- turning down applicants using Facebook can be a very slippery slope.
I think it's going to take some years for courts to decide whether Americans in the digital age have the same privacy rights, Crump said.
In the meantime, senators will continue their fight to protect candidates' private information, and applicants will be forced to make difficult decisions to balance their privacy and their income. Thankfully, the fight favors the unemployed masses because in this tough job economy, politicians cannot afford to keep people out of work if they hope to get re-elected.