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 U.S. +1.407.788.2780     Germany +49.89.6.214.6044 info@aimgroup.com

By Brian Blum

Here’s a trend that seems outright outrageous to us: asking for a job applicant’s social-media passwords.

It’s been in the news for the past few years, off-and-on, especially during the past few weeks. Today, the Toronto Star has an article about a candidate for a law enforcement job who was asked to share his Facebook password with the recruiter. He wasn’t just asked to “friend” the recruiter, and when he offered to show his profile on the laptop in the interview room, the recruiter insisted on receiving the password.

The article in the Star came in reaction to a flurry of reports in the U.S. and U.K. about the occasional use of this distressing practice. Asking for an applicant’s password for a job with the police jobs seems to be the most common – Bloomberg BusinessWeek cites examples from Virginia, Montana and Maryland – while The Telegraph writes about an online retail company employee in the U.K. who was asked to hand over his login details after his employer went trolling on Facebook and couldn’t find any personal details on the worker.

Facebook itself is up in arms about the practice. The Telegraph received a response from Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, who wrote:

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. … That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

The ACLU warns that employers or recruiters asking for social media passwords are entering a legal gray area that may potentially open them up to both privacy and discrimination lawsuits. And if the employer is the government, “they may be violating your Fourth Amendment rights,” Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU, told BusinessWeek.

Canadians may have it better than job seekers elsewhere. The Canadian publication TechVibes quotes Paul Cavaluzzo, a Toronto-based labor lawyer, who says that laws in Canada are more stringent than in the U.S. with regards to protecting private information. In an interview with CityTV he noted that, while there aren’t yet laws dealing specifically with social media, Canada has “always respected privacy rights.”

Cavaluzzo adds that “if an interviewer demands your password, feel free to call them out. Or just ask them for their house keys in exchange; the differences are negligible.”

We undoubtedly haven’t heard the last of this practice, but wish we had. “Social media” are “social” for a reason. They’re for friends (or perceived friends) and for people the user elects to share with. Not for people who want to snoop on you.

But it brings to mind two dicta that we repeat, over and over, at the AIM Group:

“Don’t put it online — anywhere — if you don’t want people to see it,”

and the corollary:

“Never write it in an email unless you wouldn’t mind seeing it on the front page of The New York Times.”