Facebook has often been criticized for not taking privacy issues seriously. However, for once, it’s being proactive in defending users’ privacy. Earlier in the month, there were disturbing reports that several colleges and companies have begun demanding Facebook passwords during the interview process in the pretext of doing character check. The AP described how Rob MacLeod, a finalist for a police job, was forced to disclose his password to the interviewer. Facebook has now officially reacted to the practice, which was criticized heavily by several groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Facebook is modifying its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to explicitly forbid solicitation or sharing of passwords. Facebook’s announcement also highlights the pitfalls of requesting access to private information from candidates during the hiring process.
We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don’t think its right the thing to do. But it also may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating. 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.
Erin Egan, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, even hinted that Facebook is willing to go beyond changing its policies and issuing advisories if the need arises. “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”.
Facebook’s proactive approach needs to be applauded. It’s a refreshing departure from its typical casual approach towards user privacy. However, Facebook also has a lot to lose if the practice of forcing candidates to reveal their passwords catches on. Already, users are becoming more cautious about what they share publicly on Facebook. However, getting candidates to disclose their password bypasses any privacy wall that the user might erect. If it becomes commonplace enough, students and professionals, who form a big chunk of Facebook’s user base, could well be turned off from having a Facebook account.