Should Employers Be Allowed to Ask for Your Facebook Login?

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Update 2/22, 5:11pm: The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has suspended the practice of asking for Facebook login information for 45 days, according to an email they sent to The Atlantic. See our full story on the development.

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up the cause of a Maryland man who was forced to cough up his Facebook password during a job interview with the Department of Corrections in that state. 

According to an ACLU letter sent to the Maryland Department of Corrections, the organization requires that new applicants and those applying for recertifications give the government "their social media account usernames and personal passwords for use in employee background checks."

The ACLU calls this policy "a frightening and illegal invasion of privacy" and I can't say that I disagree. Keep in mind that this isn't looking at what you've posted to a public Twitter account; the government agency here could look through private Facebook messages, which seems a lot like reading through your mail, paper or digital.

While it's not surprising that some employers might want to snoop in your social media life, it strikes me as a remarkable misapprehension of what Facebook is to think that it should be wholly open for background investigations. Legally, things are probably more complex, but it seems commonsensical that carte blanche access to your communications should be off-limits.

The case also shows a downside to Facebook's scale. It stands to reason that the bigger they get, the more that employers and others concerned with the age-old enterprise of covering their asses will feel the need to know what their employees are up to on the service. That alone isn't going to derail the Facebook juggernaut, but it might slow down people's engagement on the site as they realize maybe a private, unknown e-mail account is a better way of sending sensitive messages.

Here's the Maryland man, Officer Robert Collins, describing what happened in his specific case:

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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