Don’t Surf My Shoulder: States Slowly Moving To Bar Employers’ Efforts To Obtain Applicants’ Social Media Info

"Seriously though.... You really DO NOT want my social media password." -Art by Shane Gorski via Flickr Creative Commons

BY BERNADETTE SADEEK — Imagine you’re minutes from being offered the job of your dreams. You’ve passed interviews and screenings with flying colors. There’s only one thing left before the prospective employer puts you in a corner office—you have to hand over all your social media passwords and usernames.

A social-media-snooping requirement, a.k.a. “shoulder surfing,” has actually become an alarmingly common prerequisite for employment. This is a pernicious trend. By allowing employers to bypass applicants’ public profiles, it gives complete strangers access to job applicants’ most personal information, including profile data, IMs, and emails.

Employers and academic institutions justify shoulder surfing as a reasonable method for learning more about applicants’ suitability for employment. Employers claim that it’s a useful tool for learning about the applicant’s habits, to discover applicants who show a pattern of spreading negative information, and to look for derogatory behavior that could potentially damage the employer’s reputation.

As is often the case when new technologies create unique problems, the law has been slow to respond. So far, only fifteen states have promulgated legislation to put a halt to the unjust invasion of applicants’ privacy rights. Among the first states to declare this right was California, which passed a social privacy bill “prohibiting colleges and universities from requesting access from students and applicants.”

Since California’s move, an expanding coalition of states has addressed the problem. For example, in Illinois, a new law prohibits:

any employer to request or require any employee or prospective employee to provide any password or other related account information in order to gain access to the employee’s or prospective employee’s account or profile on a social networking website or to demand access in any manner to an employee’s or prospective employee’s account or profile on a social networking website.

Such enacted laws are a step in the right direction. Not only do they protect applicants’ private social information, but they stop “businesses and schools from creating a legal duty to monitor password protected digital content.” Moreover, it is unclear if shoulder surfing is even effective in recruiting and accepting the most qualified individuals.

Still, many institutions continue to invade their applicants’ privacy, and will continue to do so until a uniform legal regime stops them. So, at least for now, job seekers who cannot afford to deny full access of personal social media accounts for potential job opportunities or admittance into school should employ the “grandmother rule”: if you wouldn’t want your grandma to see it, don’t post it.

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