In this era of heightened privacy awareness it’s the sort of story that makes you shake your head, but recent anecdotal evidence across America suggests a disturbing trend among businesses, companies demanding employees—prospective and current—hand over their Facebook passwords or face dismissal. It’s the sort of story that has civil liberties watch dog groups up in arms and has even put the social networking giant itself on high alert.
While the blogosphere has yet to put any names to the alleged corporations who have been engaging in these sorts of corporate social networking shenanigans, the story seems to have enough credibility that Capitol Hill is now getting involved, with government officials already calling for legislation that would see this sort of demand for private information come to an abrupt end.
Still, on the face of it the story seems far-fetched, as I find it hard to believe that suddenly corporations across the country have forgotten en masse the ongoing privacy debate. But that aside for the moment, consider this: in this fragile economy what would you do if faced with the choice between maintaining your privacy or making a living?
Surprisingly this story first came to light this past weekend, as Facebook’s Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer for Policy, posted the following warning:
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.
If true, it’s the sort of thing that makes me scratch my head, as surely someone within these companies made mention that in this sort of privacy sensitive ecosystem such behaviour would quickly becoming a rallying point for free speech lobbyists, government officials, and every person with a keyboard around the world.
That said, while such behaviour is certainly preposterous, it should come as no surprise that this certainly isn’t the first time social networking has been used as a tool of big business or big government to find out information about you and yours. To wit, speaking to a close friend who works as an insurance fraud investigator for one of Canada’s largest insurance companies, she noted that her job has been made exponentially easier because of people’s lack of online awareness, meaning that with just a few clicks she is often able to find out whether or not a person’s insurance claim is valid based on information (photos, posts, location tags) they’ve shared on Facebook.
Returning to the original point, I’m sure we’d all like to say that when faced with a situation where we had to choose between principles and money that we’d have the fortitude to choose the former, but with bills to pay, food to put on the table, and families to support, principles are sometimes a luxury we can’t all afford. Of course that makes getting to the bottom of this story all the more important, as corporations truly have no right to our private information.