Think Your Facebook Profile Is Private? Think Again

Think Your Facebook Profile Is Private? Think Again

Colleges and employers are demanding access to private Facebook and Twitter profiles, as the debate over online privacy continues to escalate.

Institutions like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Maryland Dept. of Corrections asked prospective student athletes and employees to “friend” a staff member on Facebook, allowing access to their personal profile.

The demand for access to social networking profiles is raising public concern, with a growing number of objectors who say such demands violate First Amendment rights. Users assume social networking profiles are private, a belief reinforced by most sites’ privacy policies. But if institutions can force people to grant access, the line between what’s public and private quickly blurs.

“I can’t believe some people think it’s OK to do this,” said Bradley Shear, a Washington D.C. lawyer, to MSNBC. “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 e-mail… As a society, where are we going to draw the line?”

Across the country, lawmakers, politicians, and federal government agencies are seeking answers to that question, trying to figure out how to use the Internet to increase public safety and education while avoiding allegations of “Big Brother” type scrutiny. Twitter made headlines recently when it provided profile information to the Boston Police Department concerning an alleged hacker.

Organizations like the Maryland DOC say they need to completely screen applicants, and FB profiles contain vital information, including hints at drug use or gang affiliation that could endanger other staff and inmates if undetected. The organization denied seven applicants based on Facebook photos in which potential employees flashed gang signs.

Colleges likely hope to avoid embarrassing student posts about sports teams and faculty by infiltrating Facebook profiles, but Shear says that’s no excuse for privacy bullying. “A good analogy for this, in the offline world, would it be acceptable for schools to require athletes to bug their off-campus apartments?” Shear said. “Does a school have a right to know who all your friends are?”

Some states are taking action. Maryland legislators created two bills to ban forced social media access by schools and potential employers, and the American Civil Liberties Union is enthusiastically supporting the bills.

“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,” said Melissa Coretz Goemann, Maryland ACLU legislative director. “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.”

Perhaps most importantly, forced access is against Facebook’s official Terms of Service. “Under our terms,” says Frederic Wolens, a Facebook spokesperson, “only the holder of the e-mail address and password is considered the Facebook account owner. We also prohibit anyone from soliciting the login information or accessing an account belonging to someone else.”

The debate over online privacy continues to rage, and social profiles once heralded as “private” hang in the balance. The question remains whether information is public property just because it is on the Internet.

Meanwhile, Shears thinks federal legislation might be the best solution. “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,” he said. “But it’s not. We still have privacy rights in this country, and we still have a Constitution.”

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