Two interesting stories popped up this week about social media and job employment. It is well known that employers now routinely check social media web sites for information concerning prospective employees. But now two governmental agencies - one state, one local - are going a bit further.
According to this story yesterday at the Baltimore Sun, a Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) officer was required to turn over his password to Facebook as part of his job interview. This officer complied with the request, but thought it was an unfair request that invaded his privacy.
So the officer complained to the American Civil Liberties Union, which in turn made an inquiry to the Division of Corrections. As a result, the Baltimore Sun reported, the head of the Secretary of the DPSCS Gary Maynard said that the practice would be suspended for 45 days until the policy could be reviewed.
In a letter to the ACLU from Secretary Maynard which the Baltimore Sun quoted, he said:
"The department's efforts to explore an applicant's behavior on social media networks stems not from a desire to invade personal privacy, but rather from a legitimate and serious concern with the infiltration of gangs into our prisons... I am sure you would agree that permitting applicants who engage in illegal activities, or have gang affiliations, to be employed as correctional officers compromises the safety of all inmates and employees within our prison walls."
In a television interview last night on Fox News WTTG 5 in Washington, DC, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said it was legal and proper to ask prospective Maryland state government employees for passwords to social media sites if there was a compelling state interest to do so.
AG Gansler, however, also said the practice should be limited, and that most government departments and agencies could gather prospective employee data by other means such as conducting more extensive background checks.
But as AG Gansler undoubtedly knows, conducting extensive background checks take time and costs money. It is a lot simpler and less expensive for governmental organizations just to demand a person's social media passwords.
In addition, since each government department or agency gets to define what is meant by "compelling state interest," the decision about who should be compelled to give up their social media can be pretty elastic.
Fox News 35 reports that the Norman, Oklahoma Police Department wants its prospective police officers to provide their passwords to social media sites as part of their background check as well.
The Fox story quotes Captain Tom Easley from the Norman Oklahoma Police Department as saying:
"We generally ask the applicant for their password so we can really drill down and see exactly what they're posting . . . We're actually hiring based on the quality of a person and you judge that through a variety of tools including a background investigation that talks to previous employers to friends to relatives to neighbors and up to and including their Facebook account . . . You're investing these individuals that you hire with the legal authority to arrest people and in the worst case scenario take someone's life."
So, do Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler and Norman Oklahoma Police Captain Tom Easley have compelling arguments for obtaining a prospective government employee's social media passwords or not?
If so, where do you draw the line?
And is this the proverbial "thin edge of the wedge" for all employers, government or not? Can't the same "compelling public interest" argument be made for numerous commercial occupations as well, such as airline pilot, school bus driver, etc.?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.