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March 23, 2012

Facebook Defends Its User Policies as Potential Employers Move To Snoop On Job Applicants' Profile Pages: Social Giant Says It Wants To Protect Users As Well As Their Friends By Championing Privacy Protection

Facebook has taken a firm user-protection stance on the controversy of some employers now requiring job applicants to hand over their log-in information. On the heels of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) decrying the vetting practice as an "unreasonable invasion of privacy for people seeking work" last week — and vowing to write legislation to stop it — Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan posted a note on Facebook explicitly stating the company's position: "As a user, you shouldn't be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn't have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don't know and didn't intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job," he wrote in a company blog post on Friday. The new privacy concerns were spurred by a report by the AP about employers asking applicants and existing employees for log-in credentials to their email accounts and social networking sites in order to scrutinize their online behavior. "These practices seem to be spreading, which is why federal law ought to address them," Blumenthal told Politico last week. "They go beyond the borders of individual states and call for a national solution," he added, the LA Times reports. The average profile can be overflowing with information that could be used to piece together a detailed composite of a job applicant, which can include details such as ethnicity and physical ability that are strictly off-limits in the hiring process. "I would argue that it's an invasion of privacy and violation of anti-discrimination law," said employment attorney Amy Semmel of Kelley Semmel in LA, the Times reports. Egan warns that the company may take legal action against those who continue this practice — "We'll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges," he said, according to the Times report.

This issue of employers violating applicants' social media privacy has been on the radar of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been involved in a similar case in 2010. The ACLU has also weighed in recently. "People are entitled to their private lives," said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump on the ACLU site. "You'd be appalled if your employer insisted on opening up your postal mail to see if there was anything of interest inside. It's equally out of bounds for an employer to go on a fishing expedition through a person's private social media account," she added, the LA Times reports in an article by Michelle Maltais.

In addition to privacy vulnerabilities for users, the snooping practice can put employers themselves at risk. Companies making such requests may not have the right policies or training in place to deal with private information, according to Facebook. Further, companies might be held liable if the information they find proves problematic, such as a post that "suggests the commission of a crime." Employers could face other thorny legal issues, noted Facebook. "For example, if an employer sees on Facebook that someone is a member of a protected group (e.g. over a certain age, etc.), that employer may open themselves up to claims of discrimination if they don't hire that person," the company said, CNET News reports in a post by blogger Lance Whitney.

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