When I wrote about the increasing tendency of companies to demand the Facebook usernames and passwords of job applicants, I figured it was one of those abuses that grow out of ignorance – more of a massive techno/privacy faux pas than a consistent, conscious effort to pry into places employers should not go.
Colleges do it almost routinely as a way to make the work of applicant-vetting easier. Most already had staffers using their own Facebook accounts to scan the comments, Friends and activities of applicants, especially to very competitive schools.
Put up a few pictures of you being an idiot and Harvard will find out you're an idiot, no matter how well you've hidden the evidence in your permanent record.
It turns out it is a lot more than just a new, minor trend. It's pretty well developed, though rarely discussed among adults, who may be embarrassed by the intrusion, embarrassed by what was exposed or just too wary of the consequences to complain much about it.
Kids, on the other hand, not only complain, they strategize, and trade advice.
My sources on this have to remain unnamed, but all are among the hordes crowding toward the narrow entrance corridors of the nation's halls of academia, or are helping guide the herd in the right direction and advising them not to trample each other.
Until last year the Thing to Do with your Facebook account is exactly the advice most news outlets are giving to adults now: Edit your Facebook account, take out any embarrassing pictures, un-Friend all those Friends whose criminal past or wild present give you a thrill by association. Remove from your personal social-networking site all evidence of personality, individuality, social interaction or ability to have fun.
Any indication of any of those could cause a negative reaction in a hiring manager whose soul has already dried up like desiccated prunes and whose taste for life has shriveled behind lips pursed in disapproval and eyes shining with the righteousness of those who are willing to put others through any indignity, probe any delicate part, brush away any inconvenient legalities or discussion of "rights" in order to ferret out some bit of private information that would allow them to complete an evisceration of the ego by dismissing the applicant out of hand as "inappropriate."
Since the ACLU began pressuring companies, colleges and government agencies that do this, and publicizing the fact that it's being done, some companies have shifted from requiring candidates to hand over their passwords to simply stuffing them into a chair in front of a company computer, demanding that they log in to Facebook and then read slowly (their lips don't move as fast as yours), looking up all the hard words, telling the humiliated job candidates when and where to click so they can pry into private lives by proxy rather than doing it obviously and in person.
If anything, that's even worse than the other way, which is like handing over your keys so a burglar can rifle through your underwear drawer, rather than having to go along to the burglar can make fun of the quality of your underwear and complete absence of the kind of embarrassing evidence that you have a more interesting life than it seems from the outside.
High school kids are way ahead on avoiding humiliation, at least this particular one.
Rather than pull all the good stuff out of their Facebook profiles – which is a lot of work and often ineffective because Friends can post things unexpectedly or be traced through the account anyway – high school seniors are changing the names on their Facebook accounts to make it harder for college-admissions censors to find them.
Rather than John Smith, the account can be renamed J04n Sm111th__123. Not aesthetically pleasing, but far less likely to get Jack bounced out of line at his 10 colleges of choice than the ineradicable links to that naked after-prom party to which police, DHS and the animal control were forced to respond.
It's not a good option. Changing the account makes it harder for John's friends or Friends to find him. And it's no guarantee college censors won't figure out his new name the way they have plenty of other Facebook accounts hidden by changing Jane Doe to Jan_Doe1.
The right not to be violated in your most personal space
To a certain extent, hiding your Facebook profile is also not honest. It means you're hoping to be chosen for something you might not deserve by concealing the kind of weaknesses that might be most relevant to the decision.
It's not quite cheating, but it's close.
It's also perfectly justifiable, especially if you can't avoid demands by a college or prospective employer that you turn over your password.
Neither one has any right to demand access to your private social-networking accounts any more than they could demand to rifle through your purse or tell you to strip to your boxers for a quick, harmless strip search.
Priorities out of balance, sense of entitlement out of whack
It's bad enough that colleges or anyone else would routinely search Facebook to discover things about candidates the candidates prefer not to disclose. At least in that case they're doing the equivalent of walking through a public place, taking note of how a candidate they're considering behaves then they're not watching. That's a little creepy, but not criminally invasive.
Forcing your way into someone else's account is like forcing your way into their house; there's no question you're violating the law and violating the person you're considering, and ruining any possible relationship with them in the future.
People have the right to not disclose every fact about themselves or narrate every second of their history, no matter what the stakes. They resent being forced to do so, whether it's a manager, a college or even a member of the family. "None of your business" is the last line of defense between the unspeaking, unique personality that lives only within the head and probing from strangers not satisfied with the paler imitation of our inner selves that form the personae we use to interact with the world.
Colleges and employers have a right to know something about you, too, of course, and to know the information you give them is accurate.
The relationship between an applicant and a decisionmaker is not a level one, however. The one making the decisions has all the power and can abuse it, in most cases, however much he or she likes.
Any comeuppance, if it happens at all, would come from a lawsuit months or years later – one that's expensive and difficult to file, filled with charges that are often difficult to prove.
When there's no way available to defend the privacy of your private life or private thoughts, the only option is to make them a little harder to violate by making them less obvious, more difficult to dig through.
To those who are honest, hiding so large a part of our lives feels like lying. Most people have no experience having to conceal secrets larger than their salary, level of happiness or how good an athlete they really were in high school.
There should still be no need to have to conceal the mundane, mostly inconsequential personal lives nosy, entitled snoops would like to examine and judge.
Within two, three or five years, if the Supreme Court remembers it's there to defend the Constitution, not change the language to make Corporate Persons more happy, we'll have drawn legal and ethical lines that make clear what kind of snooping is acceptable and what isn't.
Right now the snoops don't believe in limits, apparently don't believe in personal rights and certainly don't believe there is any reason not to drop whatever punishment they can muster on anyone who is hiding their personal life by refusing to hand over access to what passes for a circle of friends or private chatter among acquaintances.
The limits are there, however, and you're the only one who can enforce them.
If you can't do it by refusing, do it by concealing what bosses have no right to discover. Don't lie outright, and don't lie to improve your status. Those have always been offenses and still are.
But, when some twit demands the keys to your personal kingdom, don't admit you have them in your pocket, and don't go out of your way to let them know how to get there.
In the kingdom of the heart, each soul is its own king. Abdicate at your own risk and to your own sorrow.
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.