By Eric Rabe, Fels Senior Advisor
In an announcement on Friday, Facebook said it is taking steps to prevent employers from getting access to the FB accounts of employees. It’s the right call. The surprising thing is that it was even a question. What is the implication for governments and agencies?
Of course, Facebook is the world’s most-used social media platform, and nearly one billion people rely on FB to help them keep in touch with friends, business associates, or you-name-it. Yet even as users turn to FB to spread information about themselves, it should come as no surprise that account owners expect to be the ones to control who gets to see their life’s details.
According to the FB announcement, the company has increasing reports of employers trying to get into the accounts of employees or potential employees and “…employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords.” Although Facebook didn’t say so, there are reports of police agencies asking candidates for access to their FB account, for example. The practice may extend to some schools and university athletic departments. Do job seekers, students, athletes and others really “volunteer” to disclose the information held in their social media accounts in these situations?
As local governments become more and more engaged in social media they could be on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, as employers they may seek to know what a prospective candidate for employment does on line even inside restricted social media communities. At the same time, cities and other governments could find themselves in Facebook’s position with constituents who reasonably expect information they provide to cities on social media sites to be kept confidential.
Most cities and other governments would not disclose tax records, for example, without following a stated and court-tested policy. But the realm of social media is not so clear. Governments receive personal information from social networks or from constituents who provide data in the course of normal civic business. Just how can they use that information?
A lusty debate is growing over what privacy users should expect from socialmedia sites. Many believe that it is fair game for employers to check available Internet information about employees or potential employees. In this age, most of us have come to accept that googling ourselves every now and then to see what turns up is a reasonable practice.
However, pressuring job seekers or student athletes to turn over passwords, takes the practice of checking out people on the Web too far. In addition, cities, companies, schools and universities put themselves at risk when they ask for access to private information. What additional liability do they take on if they routinely check such information but miss warning signs of a future crisis?
So now Facebook in its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities makes it a violation of the companies policy to solicit a Facebook password.
Cities, states and agencies should take a page out of the Facebook and write a clear “users bill of rights” stating exactly what use will be made of information gathered online whether through social media, the Internet in general, or in any other way. Such a policy for local government could include a statement that the information will only be used to fulfill user requests and provide service and not disclosed outside the civic organization. Developing such a policy not only lets users know what to expect, but it can protect the government agency as well.
Fels Research & Consulting will soon be publishing a comprehensive guide detailing trends of social media in government and tips for effective use of this powerful tool. See details here.