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The Current: ‘Private’ settings may not be so

Employers have begun asking job applicants for social media passwords to view personal information

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Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 9:47 pm, Sat Apr 19, 2014.

Attention, Facebook users: Watch what you post; it could keep you from your dream job someday.

Since 2006, people have been documenting their entire lives online for the world to see, from where they are and what they’re eating to their beliefs and innermost thoughts to things that potential employers might want to see.

Earlier this year, USA Today reported that Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician, was interviewed for a job. He was asked a few standard questions before the interviewer got on Facebook, searched for Bassett and found his profile, which was set to private. The interviewer then asked for his login information; Bassett refused and withdrew his application.

According to the report by USA Today, companies and government agencies are beginning to go past glancing at an applicant’s profile page, and instead asking to log in as the applicant to have a more in-depth look.

So much for keeping your profile private and your business to yourself and your friends. This trend has the social networking website attempting to protect its users.

“Facebook warned employers not to ask job applicants for their passwords, presumably so they could view applicant profiles on the site,” according to The New York Times. “The company threatened legal action against applications that violated its longstanding policy against sharing passwords.”

In addition to Facebook’s warnings, several states have passed laws preventing employers from asking applicants for this information; there are no general laws, however, governing this practice.

“In general, there is no legal prohibition against asking someone for the password to their social networking presence,” said Wayne State Law School professor John Rothchild, who added that there is no legal prohibition to prevent an employer from asking for the log-in information either.

Wayne Law professor Jonathan Weinberg said the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent employers from asking for this information in September; the bill is pending Senate consideration. Because the bill has not been made a law, it is not illegal for employers to refuse to hire an applicant because they refuse to give their log-in information.

There are laws, however, that prevent employers from refusing an applicant a job based on other characteristics, such as religious beliefs or marital status, Weinberg said.

“On the other hand, if an employer read a person’s social networking page and concluded that the person was a jerk, the law doesn’t stop the employer from refusing to hire him on that basis,” Weinberg said.

Let’s be real: Not everyone is completely himself or herself on the Internet. If they were, we wouldn’t be stuck with a plethora of trolls, those bogus accounts people make to intentionally cause chaos on the Internet for the fun of it.

More than that, there is some information that is available on Facebook that should not be a concern of potential employers because it makes it too easy for them to discriminate.

Sexual orientation, religious, political and social beliefs and other personal characteristics are things that are not solicited on applications, but they can be easily found through a person’s Facebook page. This is information that a potential employer doesn’t really need to know, as it does not pertain to the job a person can do, provided the applicant isn’t applying for a religious, political or similar position, in which case they would have probably disclosed this information willingly.

George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor Orin Kerr told USA Today that asking for Facebook log-in information nowadays is like asking for a person’s house keys.

Kerr makes a valid point. If a person wants to leave his or her Facebook open to the public, they can; it’s his or her page. If a person wants to open the front door of his or her home to let the world in, they can; it’s that person’s house.

If the front door is closed and locked, however, no one should be allowed to demand access. Facebook isn’t your house, and there are no general laws in most states that make it illegal for employers to demand access. But maybe, someday there will be.

In the meantime, whatever you post on the Internet will stay out there forever. But you should be able to keep your business with the people you trust, whether it be with your close family and friends or all seven billion people, give or take a few, on the planet.

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