Facebook's unintentionally hilarious lecture to employers asking job applicants for passwords

Social network's claim that it takes users' privacy seriously at odds with history

I agree with everything Facebook's chief privacy officer said in a blog post Friday about employers asking prospective employees to reveal their passwords. It's distressing, alarming and obnoxious. "As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job," writes CPO Erin Egan. "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." Facebook was responding to reports that some employers are requiring job applicants to give them access to their Facebook accounts so they can romp around and find out the "truth" about prospective employees. And Facebook wants this to stop. However, the truth is that Facebook can't do much of anything to halt this odious practice, any more than it can prevent kids under age 13 from joining the social networking site. That's why Egan threw in some scare talk to boost the gravitas of Facebook's request.

"We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don’t think it’s 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.

"Employers also may not have the proper policies and training for reviewers to handle private information. If they don’t—and actually, even if they do—the employer may assume liability for the protection of the information they have seen or for knowing what responsibilities may arise based on different types of information (e.g. if the information suggests the commission of a crime)."

Sobering words. But don't expect Facebook's stern disapproval and hints of legal liability to scare off employers who want access to applicants' log-in information so they can vet prospective hires. For starters, Facebook isn't the hiring boss of the employers in question. Secondly, it's not likely that Facebook itself expects a scolding to dissuade sleazy employers from violating Facebook members' privacy. This is a PR move, pure and simple. The unintentionally humorous part of Facebook's outrage over employer password requests is Egan's straight-faced declaration that "Facebook takes your privacy seriously." Really? Rather than link to every article and blog post demonstrating that Facebook actually has an historically indifferent attitude toward protecting user privacy, check out any one of these posts by ITworld privacy blogger Dan Tynan. They make a mockery of Egan's solemn claim.

Chris Nerney writes ITworld's Tech Business Today blog. Follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisNerney. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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