Privacy Invasion: Social media monitoring required to attend college or to be hired?

Much like a thinly veiled threat, some employers and colleges may suggest you "friend" them on social media or worse - they may insist on your password to Twitter, to Facebook, Google+ and other social media sites so they can see what you post, your photos, what you say in DMs, and what you chat about.

Sometimes social networking comes back to bite you with privacy invasion such as when attorneys snoop on social networks to vet jurors or potential employers pry into social media before hiring employees. Sometimes it might be drunken posts or photos that do a person in. According to a Microsoft survey about the negative effects of unwise social media posts, 14% of people surveyed lost out on the college they wanted, 16% lost out on getting a job and 21% were fired from a job. Some employers and colleges may insist you "friend" them on social media or worse — they may insist on your password to Twitter, to Facebook, Google+ and other social media sites so they can see what you post, your photos, what you say in DMs, and what you chat about.

Maryland ACLU legislative director Melissa Coretz Goemann stated, "This is an invasion of privacy. People have so much personal information on their pages now. A person can treat it almost like a diary. And (interviewers and schools) are also invading other people's privacy. They get access to that individual's posts and all their friends. There is a lot of private information there."

Last year the ACLU reported the Maryland Correction Agency demanded all social media passwords from potential employees. The ACLU helped stopped that practice, but another privacy invasive policy is now standard practice for the Department of Corrections. During an interview, potential employees are asked to log into social media accounts while the interviewer watches the "clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall."

Is it required? Not exactly . . . but in this rough economy people are afraid not to comply, afraid they will be denied employment. Whether it is employers or colleges, this type of social media monitoring is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. "I can't believe some people think it's OK to do this," Bradley Shear, a Washington D.C.-lawyer, told MSNBC's Red Tape. "Maybe it's OK if you live in a totalitarian regime, but we still have a Constitution to protect us. It's not a far leap from reading people's Facebook posts to reading their email. ... As a society, where are we going to draw the line?" Excellent question.

While some employers may use social media monitoring tools like Trackur or SocialIntel, colleges are getting into the act too and demanding "full access" according to Red Tape. Some colleges may use third-party companies like Varsity Monitor and UDiligence to monitor students' social media accounts on the school's behalf. The software offers "a 'reputation scoreboard' to coaches" and sends "'threat level' warnings about individual athletes to compliance officers."

Student-athletes in colleges around the country also are finding out they can no longer maintain privacy in Facebook communications because schools are requiring them to "friend" a coach or compliance officer, giving that person access to their "friends-only" posts.

A recent revision in the handbook at the University of North Carolina is typical: "Each team must identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to and regularly monitoring the content of team members' social networking sites and postings," it reads. "The athletics department also reserves the right to have other staff members monitor athletes' posts."

Of the social media monitoring scholarship providers who answered a recent survey, nearly one-fourth vet students' social networks by searching on "sites such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter to check out applicants, primarily just finalists." Of those who do snoop on social media, about 75% "are looking for behavior that could reflect badly on the scholarship provider, such as underage drinking, provocative pictures, illegal drug use or racial slurs," reported the San Francisco Chronicle. More than 50% want "to know the applicant better or were looking for positive traits such as creativity or good communication skills." About 25% want "to verify information on the application." And "about one-third have denied an applicant a scholarship, and a quarter have granted an applicant a scholarship, because of something they found online."

The ACLU is supporting Maryland bills to protect civil liberties by restricting "university administrations from checking students' private communications." According to Southern Maryland News, Sen. Ronald Young said, "This practice is stepping on constitutional rights. They don't have the right to come into your house and listen to your telephone calls or read your mail....It amounts to a subtle threat." Del. Shawn Tarrant added, "Students should be able to attend college with a reasonable sense of privacy." Universities should not require students or athletes to provide "email or social media usernames and passwords to university staff." Just the same, the NCAA has a policy "to recommend, but not require, monitoring of athletes' social media sites." It seems much like a thinly veiled threat, if you want to play then you must friend the coach.

Shear said, "A good analogy for this, in the offline world, would it be acceptable for schools to require athletes to bug their off-campus apartments? Does a school have a right to know who all your friends are?" Be it employers or universities, this trend to snoop via social media is troubling. Shear added, "After 9/11, we have a culture where some people think it's OK for the government to be this involved in our lives, that it's OK to turn everything over to the government. But it's not. We still have privacy rights in this country, and we still have a Constitution."

The next thing you know, someone will decide your boss can push his beliefs off on you and make decisions about birth control...oh wait!

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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