This morning I became aware of a trend that seems to be sweeping the US – employers requiring that a job applicant give them either their password to Facebook or observed access to their private account as part of the background check. One story indicated a candidate walked out of the interview and he was clearly applauded but also just as clearly wasn’t hired and this is a tight job market.
But what folks seem to forget is that we don’t live in a static world and the trend is to make what is private public and there lies the bigger strategic personal problem.
Let me explain.
Your Information Powers the Internet
While companies like Facebook and Google are clearly getting rich, what we often don’t seem to talk enough about is they are getting rich selling information about you. They can change their privacy rules whenever they want and, at least right now, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. Currently they seem to have plenty of money but, much like we have seen business suppliers of software do in the past by milking customers for fees during hard times, it is likely that when pressed, companies that have your personal information are likely to find more creative ways in the future to exploit it.
That’s the price you pay for free services on the Web these days, you give them your personal information but all of their financial incentives are tied to creative ways to mine that information.
Facebook and Google’s Problem
What makes this entire model work is that people don’t think this through and while both of these companies are more than happy to supply information under strict contract, neither wants users to see under the curtain. Companies that do this overtly are making people aware of how vulnerable they are and causing them to either abandon using these services or being far more circumspect with what they put up on them. (Both are excellent practices by the way.)
In addition, these activities during an election year could result in legislation that makes it illegal to do what they are either already doing, intend to do, or will figure out they need to do at some future point to assure revenue. Not a good trend and I’m still kind of surprised that some politician hasn’t concluded that the information Google and Facebook are mining actually belongs to the government as proxy for its citizens and started charging/taxing it accordingly. And during an election year where money is a major issue, and what year is it not, this oversight could be corrected.
Covering your Facebook Butt
My advice, which hasn’t changed by the way, is to consider everything you do on the Web public. And not to do anything you wouldn’t want your parents, spouse, employer, or grandmother to know you are doing and regardless of what happens with privacy, you are safe. Rather than walking out of an interview in a huff you can use a look at your Facebook account as a bonding moment with the recruiter, looking at pet pictures, showcasing the pride you had in your last job, and the wonderful projects your child, nephew or parrot has been up to. You’ll get the job while the idiot who decided to post his rant on racism or his belief that his boss is a moron and has wonderful shots of the drunken party at the last sales conference or talks about his deep desire for pony porn will not.
In the end this comes down to common sense. Before we had the Internet, some of us had private journals and diaries where we shared our most personal thoughts and learned that it was a bad idea when parents or siblings found them. Think of this social media stuff as that problem on nuclear steroids and that the Web is no place to store your private thoughts.
The goal isn’t to prevent employers from getting access to your Facebook page largely because the incentives in place make that inevitable, it is to make sure that access works to your benefit.
President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group
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