Say you're at a job interview. You're chatting with an HR rep, and all's going well when your interviewer asks you for ... your Facebook password.
Assuming you've misheard, you ask, "My Facebook username?"
Nono, your interviewer replies, breezily. Your password. Your Facebook password.
Yes. Apparently, for the 95 percent of employers who use social media sites to glean information about job candidates, the intelligence available for public perusal is no longer enough. Prospective employers now want to see inside your profiles. They want to see into your very soul.
Take the case of Robert Collins, the Maryland man who was forced to reveal his Facebook password during an interview with the state's Department of Corrections -- and who, as Alexis Madrigal reported, has the ACLU arguing on his behalf. Or take the tale of Justin Bassett, a New York statistician who ended a job interview after he was asked to provide his Facebook password during its proceedings. These cases, the AP notes, aren't mere anomalies. These are not rogue or clueless HR reps. "In their efforts to vet applicants," reporters Manuel Valdes and Shannon McFarland put it, "some companies and government agencies are going beyond merely glancing at a person's social networking profiles and instead asking to log in as the user to have a look around."
The whole thing is, on the one hand, comical. "It's akin to requiring someone's house keys," law professor Orin Kerr notes. (More specifically, I'd add, it's akin to requiring the keys to a house where everyone you know and care about is permanently gathered.) But the whole thing is also, more importantly, worrying. It's striking how deep the divide can be between our conceptions of online privacy: To me, an interviewer asking for my password -- Facebook or any other -- would be a fairly shocking imposition. To Justin Bassett's interviewer, though, it was a question like any other. Common standards about what's acceptable and what's not when it comes to online privacy have yet to solidify in the social environment that Facebook and other networks provide. Which leads to confusions ... and to violations.
And also, in this case, to ironies. Employers are asking for applicant passwords -- in part -- because those applicants have availed themselves of social media sites' privacy features. Savvy interviewees have made their profiles viewable only to friends and family; employers, on the other hand -- who have gotten used to social media recon as an integral aspect of the hiring process -- are looking for ways to reclaim the insights those profiles can provide. The Awkward Password Ask is their way of doing that.
The problem has become widespread enough that lawmakers are proposing legislation to fight against it. In Maryland, House Bill 364 (pdf), proposed in January, would prevent employers from discriminating against job applicants who refuse to provide access to their social media profiles. Illinois House Bill 3782, introduced in early March, would do the same. Protections like these, if they're passed into law, will likely prove important -- not just for job-seekers and their online connections, but for the everyday privacy standards that are solidifying as Facebook and its fellow networks make their way from an innovation to a way of life.