Who’s Investigating You?

Posted on 23 March 2012


In an age driven by technology where everyone has a public profile and privacy is becoming a thing of the past, it is not surprising that employers are using technology to learn more about prospective employees than ever before possible.  A recent story in the Washington Post tells the tale of Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician interviewing for a new position.


While most people expect interviewers to probe job candidates not merely on skills and experiences but also on personal attitudes and character, Justin was taken aback when the human resources person with whom he was interviewing requested his Facebook username and password so that she might review his private profile.  Refusing what he perceived as a gross invasion of privacy, Mr. Bassett withdrew his application for employment.


It seems that Justin’s story is becoming all too commonplace in a world where the private lives of ordinary people are just a few mouse clicks and key strokes from the eyes of virtually anyone able to gain access.  And, accessibility may often be gained with or without the knowledge and consent of the subjects of such investigations.


In the case of Justin Bassett, the person was forthcoming in her intent to view information about his personal life in determining his fitness for employment with her company.  One wonders, however, how many people have, in recent years, been denied employment based on personal information discovered by prospective employers online.


Facebook, Google, and other online destinations collect an enormous amount of information on visitors to their sites.  With baffling and continually changing privacy policies, few people are aware of the nature and amount of information that such sites collect purportedly to “improve the browsing experience” of their users.  Even fewer know what information they can hide and how they can do so.  Facebook’s “timeline” and Google “new privacy policy” both demonstrate that the thirst of Internet content purveyors for personal information about their site’s visitors is growing dramatically.


While some might believe that only those with something to hide need be concerned about online privacy and its impact on careers and lives, consider the fact that in our brave new world of online transparency a relatively minor indiscretion, photograph, or comment may become the basis for denial of employment or, for that matter, evidence in a future civil or criminal proceeding – whether or not the perception of the view is justified!


In the recent trial of Dharun Ravi on charges of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation that has become a cause célèbre among the gay and lesbian activist community, we learned that even deleted email and text messages can be retrieved from the archives of Internet and telecommunications service providers.  When one considers that our communications, browsing histories, and voluntarily supplied profile information (whether noted as “public” or “private”) is in one repository or another, virtually our entire lives have suddenly, and with limited warning, become a matter of record retrievable by government authorities or anyone demanding and granted access.  Now, almost everyone in the world lives in a proverbial “glass house.”


And, how many people will have the fortitude of Justin Bassett in denying access upon request when that request is made by someone with the power to grant employment, a loan, insurance coverage, or a plethora of other sought-after, critically-necessary products, services, or opportunities?


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