Lawmakers and Facebook Act Against Employers Demanding Access to Facebook Profiles

According to the Associated Press, “it has become common for managers to review publically available Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other sites to learn more about job candidates.” Companies that don’t ask for passwords ask applicants “to friend human resource managers or to log into [Facebook] on a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign non-disparagement agreements to ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.”

While stories about companies, colleges, and government agencies asking job applicants for access to their Facebook profiles have grown in recent months, the issue gained public attention when Bob Sullivan, of MSNBC’s The RedTape Chronicles blog, posted an article titled, “Govt. agencies, colleges demand applicants’ Facebook passwords.” According to Sullivan, the Maryland Department of Corrections has been asking job applicants to log into their Facebook accounts and allow the interviewer to look over their shoulder as they clicked through their profile. This is nothing new. In the past, applicants have been asked to provide the department with their username and password. While these Facebook reviews are voluntary, most applicants agreed to them assuming they were necessary for doing well in their interview.

However horrifying the FBI’s development of social media monitoring applications may appear, a story that I’ve written about previously, monitoring applications already exist and are in use. Colleges, for example, have been taking advantage of social media monitoring companies, particularly to monitor college athletes. Sullivan noted this in his article, writing about instances where colleges require their athletes to friend “a coach or compliance officer… and [provide] access to their ‘friends only’ posts.”

On Friday, Erin Egan, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, issued a statement regarding this problem,

“As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. 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. That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.”

This approach, one that both Facebook and some lawmakers are taking, focuses less on the issue of privacy and more on liability. Egan provides an example as a warning about overstepping, “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.”

Sullivan added to Egan’s point, writing that employers might not have proper policies and training to protect their company in handling applicant’s private information. “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).”

Hints about potential liability have already been raised. One of the most recent warnings was raised when a jury awarded $4 million on March 14 of this year to two separate families affected by the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech after the school was found negligent due to their inability to warn students. Bradley Shear, a D.C.-based lawyer who practices cyber and social media law, suggested that the monetary damage could have been much higher if the school employed the use of a social media monitoring company.

“Now that two $4 million dollar jury verdicts have been returned against an academic institution for a delay in properly warning its students about a killer being on the loose on campus, imagine if a school follows the above advice by Varsity Monitor [@tombuchheim It is still best practice for the athletic dept to continue to monitor social media for brand and athlete protection & edu] and a tragedy occurs that social media monitoring should have warned against but did not? Instead of multiple $4 million dollar jury verdicts would it be multiple $25 million or $50 million or $100 million dollar negligent social media monitoring jury verdicts?”

While little legislation has been put forward to protect students against monitoring, legislators in several states including Connecticut, California, Washington, Illinois and Maryland have begun the process of introducing bills that would prohibit companies from asking employees or potential employees for Facebook passwords.

“Employers can’t ask in the course of an interview your sexual orientation, your age, and yet social media accounts may have that information,” a California state senator said.


Guys… does this makes me racist?!?!?! Like – Comment- Share

The internet is, to put in laymen’s terms, a big scary place. This big scary place is where people have found a way to come together and have created small virtual communities.  Communities have sprung up on chat sites, blogs, and social media sites. Each one of the communities allows an individual to carve out their own personal nook on the internet.  In this space a person can create a reconstructed version of themselves. Sherry Turkle, in her book Life on the Screen, talks about how this reconstruction takes place on the other side of the looking glass.

Lewis Carroll used this idea of the looking glass to represent that the ‘mirror image’ on the other side of the looking glass, though visually similar, was different. This is true for the reconstruction of the self through the digital looking glass. Trukle expresses that we are now able to express our identity as a multiplicity of ourselves. Let that sink in. To me this sounds like we are becoming internet Skitsofrantics; creating multiple personas in one space.

After thinking about the concept for a few minutes, and looking at my Facebook page, I realized Trukle had a point. We are able to ‘build a self’ representation using our digital devices. I can join groups, like artists/movies/books, follow political leaders/celebrities/imaginary people and ‘make’ friends. All of these things come together to make… me. Well virtual me, I believe I am much better looking in person.

Turkle states that the internet is a social laboratory meant for experimenting. Experimenting… on the internet… sounds dangerous to me. What Turkle meant is that we experiment with the representation and creation of ourselves. We are able to shape and self create a person that is at the same time us… and not us. The example in Life on the Screen is about an dating chat site where a woman states that she is confident in her interpersonal communications with a man (Turkle notes this woman is not entirely sure she is talking to a man, but believes ‘he’ would not desire to meet in person if he wasn’t) but is fearful of meeting in person. This woman, an internet Casanova, states that she was mostly honest in her communications, and believes this ‘man’ to have done the same.

Mostly honest. I was mostly honest when I told I was only going to only do my homework tonight. What is going on in this situation is a divide in reality. The woman that is on the other side of the looking glass is a fragmented personality of a real life person. The facts match up in most cases, but there are always going to be some shady ones right there too. Turkle states that this is a case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I hope internet Kevin is not so violently different from the Kevin that you see walking around (normally smiling).

The idea that we are different on the internet is one that I can accept; it is in the experimentation that worries me. The experimentation of the self can bring people to darker places (letting Jekyll out for a stroll). In a realm where you have carved out a personal space, unique to the individual, you can experiment with extremes. A simple idea that you hold is easy to blow up with the use of a few key strokes of a key board. Example “OMG I GOT 5 POINTS OFF MY MIDTERM FOR THE IMPROPER USE OF A SEMI-COLON. MY TEACHER IS SUCH A NAZI”. (Note: This is not a personal quote, as I would never use a semi-colon improperly) Now it is highly unlikely that the teacher of this boy/ girl/ intelligent chimp is really a Nazi. The accusation of which is extreme, and if brought to the public sphere can detrimentally hurt the career of this teacher (don’t they have it hard enough?).

This extends into the area I promised I would focus on, digital racism.  This is not just simply being an active member on the KKK website (Note: I have not looked here personally yet, as I am fearful of being tracked for going there… one of the other staff writers can talk about that). This is as simple as updating your status.

Jessie Daniels, a woman who is doing research in cyber racism found this to be true at some American Colleges. The use of a social media website (read Facebook) was accessed during class (wait people do that?) by two white female students. Below is the conversation.

One of the posts read, “ewww a obabacare (sic) is in the room, i feel dirty, and unsafe. keep a eye on all of your valuables and dont make direct eye contact….i just threw up in my mouth right now …”

In another post, one of the women wrote, “were two white girls..she already has her (N-word) instinct to kill us and use us to her pleasure …”

Daniels is quick to mention that in the past these types of actions (read ‘overtly racist comments) took place ‘backstage’. The ‘backstage’ is the area Daniels refers to as the (white only space).  The ‘backstage’ actions would be invisible to those watching an exchange between (white?) people. The digital advance has taken the behind the scenes to the spot light (the Internet, our personal E! True Hollywood Story).

Daniels pushes that the comments were placed into a (digital) public sphere, and despite the fact that the African American girl sitting in class (probably just trying to take notes) might never see the comments, someone else will, potentially someone who knows her. These comments are no longer just personal interaction; they have become a public declaration. A declaration that states racism very much still exists.  (And with the click of your mouse you can ‘like’ that this took place!)

So how would Turkle look at this you may ask? Would she state that the girls are not really racist, and that they were just presenting a fragmented part of their personality? Is it the part that believes that the degradation of a classmate is not only acceptable, but should be put on a silver platter and served to their ‘friends’?  Are these girls like Lady Casanova, presenting a mostly honest portrait of themselves? Regardless of any of these questions is the question over if this is even an acceptable action.

Should the digital self be able to produce hateful speech? Hate speech, a primary component of racism, is a murky area that is often protected by the Freedom of Speech. Is the digital persona we create responsible for the hate speech and advancement of digital racism, or is the responsible party the person experimenting with building a multiplicity of themselves?

Daniels is wise (in my opinion) to offer us the insight that the framers of the U.S. Constitution most likely did not have Facebook in mind when they decided to draft the First Amendment. (This could make a funny comedy sketch…) Can we afford to protect the tweets and status updates of every person that decides that today a racial slur will really make my status pop on the front page? If in our society we have decided that we should (try) to limit the amount of damage we place on another person, should this ideal also go through the looking glass?

Will your (and I am not saying you have, just go with this) post that is boarder line racist ever reach the eyes or ears of the described party/group? Maybe not, but is not stopping this type of ‘speech’ allowing for the internet to be saturated with more racism? Does the space an individual has carved out have an effect on the spaces of others?

I know that I have raised a few questions in the past few paragraphs (read essay/novel) but I feel the need to do some self reflection, and feel free to join in. Without looking I believe I may have at some point used a slur on one of my social media sites. Thinking about it does this make me racist… or does it make Digital-Fragmented-Reconstructed Kevin a racist. I sure hope not, but my followers (friends?) may think something different.

The effect of each post that Daniels sees as cyber racism is hard to quantify, but there is the chance that the existence of such posts create an unsafe (digital) community that can scare off potential users. An example: I would feel very uncomfortable on Facebook if my ‘friends’ started posting links and status about something personal to me (Insert: athletes, Irish people (hmmm), theater kids, and really ridiculously good looking people). I would feel as though the social medium was being used to attack me personally, even if this was not the intent.

So is the internet racist for allowing this to happen or are the users (at least their multiplicities) the racist ones?  Something to think about the next time you post/read a questionable update/tweet.








Social Media Monitoring Programs: a very real reality

FBI attempts to determine the feasibility of building a social media monitoring application

Over the past few years, there has been a massive global public outcry about how online users are tracked and their information collected. Both Facebook and Google have been criticized heavily for their lack of transparency on the issue and for what sometimes seems their disingenuous interest in improving their policies. Curiously, this popular anger so far seems to extend only to corporations. Concerns or fears about government tracking are less vocalized, which is not to say that they do not exist, simply that they are less a part of the popular narrative.

These concerns and complaints border on hypocrisy. We willingly give up our information to these companies through signing up for profiles, posting our photos, and sharing on friend’s walls. While we say we expect them to maintain our privacy, but all the while we know they plan to use the information to ‘improve’ our online experience.

This issue—actually a complex set of issues including questions about what is public? What is private? How can privacy be enforced?—is not one that can be solved solely between online users and individual companies. Companies are not in power, governments are. When the conversation is about governments where the power structure is decidedly in their favor, governments like the Peoples Republic of China, the issue seems easier to understand and discuss and solutions seem more achievable because there is less of a grey area. However, the issue is not as simple for the U.S. government, which does not exercise the amount of force and control over information that China is able to exert, despite making some dubious and controversial decisions that affect privacy, like the Patriot Act. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), however, appears to have adopted the view that what we publish online, particularly on social media sites, is public and open.

In mid-January 2012, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a document that outlined the possibility of developing an application that would monitor all data published online, most specifically social media outlets, to benefit the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC). According to the FBI, the government does not currently have any current social media or news media collection processes or services used by SIOC. While the FBI does not yet have the capability the pursuit by the intelligence field of this type of information collecting is nothing new. In 2006, New Scientist published an article, describing how the Pentagon’s National Security Agency funded research about “mass harvesting of the information people post about themselves on social networks.” (Free full version of the article here)

The possibilities for building a massive database about the public, given the scale of this method of information gathering, are astounding. The FBI’s hopes for their proposed application’s capabilities, which New Scientist aptly summarized as their “wish list,” are equally astounding. They hope that the application would be able to search, vet, alert, select, map, and spot reports, tabs, Twitter and other social network monitoring along with analytical capabilities. published a summarization of the proposed application’s capabilities, stating that it would:

• Provide an automated search and scrape capability of both social networking sites and open source news sites for breaking events, crisis, and threats that meet the search parameters/keywords defined by FBI SIOC.

• Ability for user to create, define, and select parameters/key word requirements. Automated search of national news, local news, and social media networks. Examples include but are not limited to Fox News. CNN, MSNBC, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

• Provide instant notifications of breaking events, incidents, and emerging threats that have been vetted and meet the deÔ¨Åned search parameters.

• Ability to immediately access geospatial maps with coding in addition to providing critical infrastructural layers. Preferred maps include but are not limited to Google Maps, Google 3D maps, ESRI, and Yahoo Maps.

• Ability to instantly search and monitor key words and strings in all “publicly available” tweets across the Twitter Site and any other “publicly available” social networking sites/forums (i.e. Facebook, MySpace, etc.)

While the FBIs proposed new application seems alarming, it is important to remember that one of the FBI’s roles, in particular the role of the SIOC, is to search, vet, alert, select, map etc.

Whether or not we as citizens trust the US government with our privacy, this level of access to information and ability to track it as well as use it is unprecedented and, quite possibly, a breech of our privacy. Whether or not this is the case, the most important question ultimately is:

How private is our information when we are willing to share it with multiple corporations and, if not everyone on the Internet, then everyone in our friend networks?

When a user posts a status or a tweet, is that information public or private? Is your online presence on Facebook like a room in your home, where you assume absolute privacy with those you have allowed in, or like a booth in a restaurant where you merely hope for it? Or is it equivalent to the open street where anyone might listen in? This is the core of the issue.

While we expect the information and opinions we publish to stay private, we also expect that information to be available for those whom we want to see it. Oddly, we make those decisions without realizing that since the information we are sharing is no longer in our heads, it is by definition no longer private. We insist we want privacy, yet we publish our thoughts and share our information in open source, publicly available forums, which, no matter how strenuous their stated intent, have limited privacy options and maintain a visual and digital record of all the information they collect. Given these facts, the decision to share personal information online while simultaneously voicing concerns about privacy seems bizarre and illogical.

Digital what?

What are we really looking at?

Digital civil liberties: a phrase comprised of words that many of us are familiar with. We can define what ‘digital’ means, we can define what ‘civil’ means, and we can define what ‘liberty’ means, right? Go on. Try it. It is actually not as simple as we may think. These terms are complex ideas that are tossed together into one concept that is becoming increasingly important.

It would appear that we are currently immersed in a transitional period in which we are digitalizing the ‘real world.’ There is that word ‘digital’ again. This term, of course, refers to the internet, but it also can mean mobile phones and tablets, global positioning systems and many other new technologies. Developed societies are becoming more reliant on the digital realm than ever before.

As humans progress further into the digital realm, it follows that key characteristics of specific societies will also carry over to the digital world. The digitalization of human qualities is a fascinating concept. One such example is the longing for privacy, which is a need characteristic of many humans. Consequently, digital privacy has become a huge topic of debate.

There has also been found bias in the digital realm, creating what you could call  digital racism, digital sexism, and even digital ageism. How does something like this even enter into the digital world, a place that appears to have no personal face with which to express bias against.

And who can forget about hackers in the digital era? There seems to be an influx of stories about ‘hackers’ that are infringing on our rights online. These men and women are engaged in projects that expand and challenge the framework of the current digital state. Are their manipulations to be applauded or should they be punished for infringing on others’ ‘liberties’?

The question also arises over who shall be in control. Societies, at least the ones we are familiar with, bring with them governing bodies, whether democratic or totalitarian. Who will be the champion of the digital era and will the rules they put in place be fair? An even more important question is if it is fair for these rules to even be created.

Digital civil liberties, three words that encompass so much of our everyday interactions with the world we are involved in that so often go unquestioned. How many times have we agreed to terms and agreement policies without thought? How often do we send emails and download files without thinking about who can watch our activities? Is there really a need for concern, or should we be trustful that the digital era will be able to comfort and care for society’s needs.

The notion of digital civil liberties encompasses concepts such as freedom of speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights. There seems to be no end to what can be captured under this umbrella. Every time we interact with anything digital we are doing so mostly ignorant of the implications that we could be incurring. We hope that through the study of articles and journals on a variety of issues relating to digital civil liberties to gain a better understanding of where we are heading and what to expect.

We hope that you will join us in learning about this topic. Be on the lookout for updates from us over the next few weeks.

To learn more about us as individual writers and the topics we will be focusing on click here or go to the Staff Writers page.