Making Facebook private won't protect you

State agencies are forcing prospective employees to reveal their private Facebook profiles -- or face the consequences.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Setting your Facebook page to “friends only” and your Twitter feed to private is a good idea, especially if you’re hunting for a job or trying to get into the college of your choice. You want to be selective in the details you reveal about yourself and, quite frankly, what you post on a social network is none of their damned business.

But it appears even that may not be enough to protect you any more.

Bob Sullivan of MSNBC reports that some state agencies and colleges are forcing prospective employees and students to grant them full access to their social networks. Per Sullivan:

In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state's Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall….

Maryland's Department of Corrections policy first came to light last year, when corrections officer Robert Collins complained to the ACLU that he was forced to surrender his Facebook user name and password during an interview. The state agency suspended the policy for 45 days, and eventually settled on the “shoulder-surfing” substitute.

Submitting to a Facebook frisk is voluntary, but only nominally. If you want the job (and to want to be a prison guard you’re probably pretty desperate) you’ll do whatever it takes.

Sullivan adds that student athletes around the country have also been forced to ‘friend’ a coach or administrator on social networks, so they can keep a close watch on what the athlete is posting online.

He explains that the prisons want to know if any of their guards are flashing gang signs in their photos. The colleges want to avoid embarrassing incidents caused by athletes posting inappropriate things – or, in the case of North Carolina defensive lineman Marvin Austin, who apparently was flashing a bit too much bling on Twitter for an otherwise unemployed student-athlete, NCAA investigations into illicit contacts with sports agents.

Still, this is wrong on many counts. If prisons managed to hire guards before Facebook existed, they can still hire them now without forcing them to open their social networks. If you need to scan Facebook to find out if someone is a Blood or a Crip, you’ve got bigger problems. Worried about a student athlete embarrassing your college? Having them keep their accounts private (and educating them on what is and isn’t appropriate to post) is the best way to do that.

Essentially, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have turned into de facto background checks. The problem: Actual background check agencies are somewhat regulated; consumers have some protections about how the information is used and who has access to it. Not so with social media -- at least, not yet.

Granted, if I were an employer, I would probably look at the Facebook profile of someone I was considering hiring, just as I would call their references. If I was looking for someone clever and creative, for example, I’d expect their Facebook profile to be clever and creative. But if the profile was private, I wouldn’t attempt to coerce them into revealing it. And if I did, why would any sane person want to work for me?

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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