Yet, according to the April 23, 2013 U.K. Daily Mail headline, “U.S. employees set to be forced to give bosses their Facebook PASSWORDS”, a key legal protection from being required to share one’s Facebook (and, by implication or invasive extension, other social media passwords) with one’s current or prospective employer has just been voted down by the U.S. House of Representatives.
A same-day Huffington Post headline, “CISPA Amendment Banning Employers From Asking For Facebook Passwords Blocked”, although more muted than the Daily Mail’s, carried the same implication: a big (Brother) step has been taken toward mandatory surrender (“sharing”) of private passwords as a precondition of having a job. (Note: a password “shared” is a password surrendered and failed, or, in the worst case, no password at all—just as a secret told to “only” one person is by definition no longer a secret.)
The possibility of allowing access on employer demand to even prospective-employee passwords is also a grave concern to some: “Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter attempted to tack on a provision to CISPA that would make it illegal for employers to require prospective employees to hand over their social media passwords as a condition of acquiring or keeping a job.” (webpronews.com)
Doorway to Discrimination?
As things stand, in many jurisdictions, an employer cannot even request, much less demand, personal information, such as age, religion, sexual preference/experience or marital status—lest the door be opened to discrimination (and attendant risk of being sued), not to mention invasion of privacy, infringement of free speech, etc.
So, assuming that these are precisely the kinds of things that commonly appear—if not showcased—on Facebook, isn’t being forced to hand over one’s password tantamount to allowing employers to fish for information they are otherwise legally barred from seeking and de facto infringement of personal liberties?
To argue that, in posting that kind of information online explicitly or implicitly, an individual has made it public and therefore unprotected, seems an unpromising tack to take. Surely, your having shared your personal information with a select group, e.g., your closest friends, in a public place, such as a park bench, does not provide grounds for the employer to demand a transcript of those park conversations. Like a park bench, and with respect to shared information, a social media site is best understood as (and is therefore set up as) a semi-public information portal.
Consider a hypothetical “Sarah”’s page:
“Hey all! Today’s my birthday! The big 50!—Best one since my divorce from Bill (who among other things, beat me, drinks way too much, got stoned too little), especially now that Samantha and I are a couple. Here’s a photo of us outside my Islamic Solidarity office. I’m thinking about quitting my job—way too much pressure! But I won’t tell them until I’m sure.”
How many ways can that tempt a bigoted, ageist, paranoid employer to get rid of her, including through prohibited discrimination? What about the risks to third parties, e.g., Bill, and their reputations—or jobs, if Bill (who has no Facebook page) works at the same company?
Random Facebook Checks and Checkpoints
Suppose that instead of demanding (and being authorized, if not, in addition and some day, required by the government to get) employee passwords to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Match.com, etc., employers were allowed or required to request or demand a random check of an applicant’s or employee’s social media pages, in the individual’s presence, without password sharing—on analogy with random requests or demands for a drug test. This would make the office a “Facebook checkpoint”.
If the applicant or employee failed or refused to comply, (s)he would or could legally get passed over or get the axe on those grounds. Protection from unauthorized employer (or coworker) tampering, impersonation and dissemination of the content would be stronger, while the employer would have a powerful tool for protection of its own interests.
Although this is not as awful in its implications and consequences of password surrender, e.g., the absolute vulnerability to employer abuse and loss of privacy inherent in surrendering one’s password, it is still very likely, and, with good reason, to alarm many who value free speech, privacy and protection from discrimination (of the kind described above), despite whatever benefits (justifiable or otherwise) to the employer, the State or society.
When the Alarm Bells Ring
So, what would or could the alarmists do about it? Consider the obvious response options:
1. Opt out of Facebook and other social media. This was mentioned and threatened in a number of posted comments about the Daily Mail and Huffington articles, e.g., “i would delete facebook (sic) in a second, why would they endorse this???” (Daily Mail) and “Yet another reason to delete your Facebook account as if there aren’t enough reasons already.” (Huffington Post)
That would be horrible for the corporate bottom line, since any mass revolt and deactivation of social media pages is the last thing that these companies want or need. Given their power and influence and the broad cultural, technological and political acceleration of the erosion of privacy, what could be done to prevent massive abandonment of social media?
Answer: Making having a Facebook account universally mandatory. This gives “no Facebook password, no job” a dual meaning: “If you don’t give us your Facebook password, there’s no job for you” and “If you don’t give us a Facebook password because you don’t have a Facebook account, there’s no job for you, until you open one and comply.”
How on Earth could a job applicant or employee respond to that? There would be no company willing or maybe even able to hire anyone without a Facebook or other social media account. That means no sanctuary. The logical response, of course, is to open or downsize to a Facebook account that provides not much more information than a G.I. prisoner of war is authorized to give his interrogators: name, rank and serial number.
To make it look more social, a photo of a cat, if not your cat, should suffice. This is where things can get really tricky and hairy: Imagine the company (or the law) demands more content, e.g., minimum number of megabytes posted, to get or keep a job. The mind boggles and stalls at this point.
2. Lie about not having a Facebook or other social media page. For lots of reasons, this is unlikely to succeed. Go ahead, try to completely remove your digital footprint, including the ones you are not aware of, e.g., someone’s mentioning your Facebook page on theirs. Good luck! Otherwise, not having a social media page could become (if it isn’t already) for some, maybe many, if not eventually all employers, a red flag at the social media rebel’s career finish line—make that “career finished” line.
3.Transform your Facebook page into a Fakebook page. This means adopting the tactic citizens were forced to employ in coping with constant Big Brother surveillance in George Orwell’s 1984: Say, show and otherwise share only what you are expected to or what is otherwise utterly innocuous.
From one perspective, posting such stodgy and bland Fakebook pages could be a very positive development.
It would provide one more incentive and reason for all of us to spend more of our time elsewhere, doing other things.