Sunday, March 25, 2012

When Privacy Controls Aren't Enough...

Those of us maturing in the Facebook Age have undergone a quick schooling on internet privacy. By now, most of us know to carefully control access to our social media profiles for fear of what acquaintances, employers, and even family members might see (don't get me started on the year that Aunt Cindy found a picture of me smoking--- not a pleasant Christmas conversation).  However, employers are now trying to circumvent these attempts at privacy by demanding new employees release their social media passwords during interviews.

This situation raises some interesting questions about citizenship and public space in the digital age. Those who oppose these measures claim that demanding access to an employee's social media presence is a profound violation of privacy, and legislation is already being drafted in Maryland and Illinois to make the practice illegal.  Facebook, itself, has threatened to sue employers who demand passwords.

Personally, I see both sides to the argument of whether or not this level of employer-snooping should be illegal. On the one hand, if we consider our virtual selves as an extension of our human selves (as I have argued here before), then it makes sense that we have some degree of privacy based on our historic conceptions of liberal citizenship and the public/private sphere distinction. In other words, what you do in the privacy of your home, or on your homepage, is your own business. There would also be a strong legal argument against the practice among public sector employers by invoking the right to privacy read into the 14th Amendment.

On the other hand, if we consider the internet, itself, as an extension of the public sphere, privacy is no longer the issue. Privacy remains in the home, away from the computer, and what we freely choose to reveal to the world-wide-web is a matter of public speculation.

Beyond these philosophical questions, the situation sheds light onto current labor relations in this country. If Facebook had been around 15 years ago, when the job market was far less grim, would this occur? If unemployment and under-employment were lower--- if people were less desperate for jobs and employers did not have such a wide pool of applicants--- would employees stand for this level of invasiveness?

Unfortunately, we are living in times when employees do not have the luxury of refusing demands. So, if you're in the job market, be prepared to defend that rant against Corporate America and those pictures from Spring Break 2007. Until then, readers, set your privacy settings-- like your aspirations for a better tomorrow-- very high.

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