State prisons will not demand social media passwords from job applicants

DOC will seek permission to view Facebook pages; candidates may refuse; critics say policy is flawed

April 06, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

State prison officials say they will no longer demand that job applicants provide passwords to social media accounts. Candidates will be asked for access but have the option of refusing, according to the prison agency.

The announcement Wednesday by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was a response to a complaint filed with the American Civil Liberties Union by a corrections job applicant, who said he was offended and troubled by a prison official's request for his Facebook password. The applicant, Robert Collins, 29, provided it because he feared that failing to do so would ruin his chances of getting a job with the Division of Correction.

The new policy states that, effective immediately, any discussion during job interviews about social-media sites or access to them is "completely voluntary," and that applicants may "decline further questioning on that topic." Such a refusal would have to be in writing.

In a letter to Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the ACLU's Maryland chapter, prisons chief Gary D. Maynard wrote that applicants will be informed "that no adverse action will be taken based on his or her refusal to answer questions regarding social media use or to allow the investigator to view any social media site."

A statement from Maynard's office said that questions about social media activity are asked for the purpose of eliminating candidates who might belong to gangs. The statement said that in a review of 2,689 applicants, or about one year's worth, seven job candidates were denied employment because of some aspect of their social media pages. Some candidates' pages "contained pictures of them showing verified gang signs," the prisons agency said.

During an internal review of the matter, undertaken since Collins' complaint became public in February, the agency said it found no indication that refusals to share social media information negatively affected applicants' chances of employment.

But ACLU officials were not mollified by the change in policy, and neither was Collins. In a statement released Wednesday, Jeon said the government should not ask people to "volunteer" access to their private communications: "If the term 'chilling effect' describes anything, it describes this. Few job applicants, eager to please a prospective employer, are going to feel genuinely free to decline to give up their information."

Equally significant, Jeon said, the DOC's revised policy does not address the privacy rights of job applicants' Facebook friends "whose privacy rights are invaded by the government without their consent."

The same concern was expressed Wednesday by Collins, who had joined the DOC in July 2007 and was a supply officer at the Patuxent Institution in Jessup before taking a bereavement leave in April last year. He reapplied in July and was ultimately rehired.

"What's to stop someone from the government from roaming around making a case against someone on your friends list?" Collins asked. "They have carte blanche. They're basically telling people they need access to their entire life. And if you agree to it, is it an indefinite authorization, or is it revocable? There are too many unknowns."

Rick Binetti, a prisons spokesman, made clear that any review of a job candidate's social media pages would take place only during the hiring process and only "in the presence of the applicant."

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