Facebook privacy: You get what you pay for

The assumption that Facebook is truly your space is a bad one

March 03, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland brings us the matter of Robert Collins, a 29-year-old corrections officer who says he was required to give up his Facebook password when he reapplied for his job after a leave of absence. He also says an investigator checked out his Facebook page and, oh my, what an egregious invasion of privacy that was.

The ACLU complained to Maryland's secretary of public safety and told the press all about the Collins matter. Predictably, the public safety secretary, Gary Maynard, suspended the practice of asking job applicants for Facebook passwords and called for a review of the matter.

In an official statement, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services denied that it demands social media information from applicants. "If an applicant does not provide this information, it is not held against them and the interview process moves forward," the statement said.

But in a letter to the ACLU, Mr. Maynard defended the practice as a means of rooting out the threat of gangs in Maryland prisons.

That's a legitimate concern. Last summer, a prison guard was among 15 people indicted by a federal grand jury for either belonging to the violent Black Guerrilla Family or helping the gang smuggle drugs and cell phones into Maryland prisons. Maryland, with more than 21,000 inmates in 24 prisons and pre-release centers, must ensure that the people it hires meet high levels of trust and do not pose security risks. Background checks have been standard practice for a long time.

But, of course, with every new age and every advance of technology comes a new realm of personal activity. There are two relevant questions here: Where do we draw the line between the employer's right to know and the prospective employee's right to privacy? And, can there really be guaranteed privacy in the cyberworld?

As any Facebooker who has tried to "friend" a stranger or old friend knows, you can't get in the door unless they want you there. So, unless Gary Maynard sent a "friend request" to everyone who applied for a job at the Division of Correction — and that request was granted — neither the public safety secretary nor his investigators would be able to see an applicant's social network.

That might explain why an investigator, having been instructed to check Facebook pages of job applicants, asked Mr. Collins for his password.

Less incendiary would have been a simple request by the investigator to be Mr. Collins' "friend" for 24 hours. At the end of that period, Mr. Collins could have just "defriended" the investigator. The investigator only would have seen what Mr. Collins' real Facebook friends see — and unless Mr. Collins' friends included members of BGF, he probably had nothing to worry about.

Howls! Jeers! As soon as I write those words, I hear a half billion Facebook users screaming: "Employers have no business looking at our pages! Mark Zuckerberg is God, and the movie about him should have won more Oscars! Facebook has privacy settings for a reason, and this is one of them! We have every right to post ridiculous photographs on Facebook without worrying that they might show up in a folder at our next job interview!"

And, look, I agree with those sentiments (including about the movie). But I think they are unrealistic.

There seem to be two understandings of Facebook's place in the world.

Some users see it as a social utility that merely extends their area of their private lives, opening up digital territory for the storage of all kinds of personal photographs, thoughts and narratives. Allowing a prospective employer into that space would be like inviting him into your bedroom closet or handing him a diary or journal.

Others see Facebook as a social utility that extends our lives into a public space. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg built privacy settings into it, but Facebook still seems to be a massive town square that millions use (including the revolutionaries in the Arab world). There's a presumption of privacy, but for all we know, it's just an illusion of privacy. You get what you pay for.

So, while I think it's too much to ask Robert Collins to give up his Facebook password — or even to "friend" an agent of the state for 24 hours — his Facebook page is fair game for anyone, including and especially a prospective employer with legitimate security concerns, who can find his way to it. Facebookers beware.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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