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If you're hunting for a job today, your next interview might just end with an awkward question, "Can we have your Facebook password?"

In an effort to get as much information as they can, a growing number of private and public employers are asking job applicants to give them access to their Facebook accounts. There have also been reports of universities asking prospective applicants for the same.

The rationale is simple and disturbing: for many individuals, Facebook contains a treasure trove of personal information and that treasure trove contains lots of information that employers feel could help them filter out nightmare employees.

For obvious reasons, asking prospective employees for their Facebook passwords is a bad idea as tempting as it may be. It's a great way to turn applicants off and it can open a can of worms that savvy employers would rather keep shut.

Even so, it's apparently happening enough that Facebook today spoke out on the matter. In a blog post, Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer, wrote:

As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job. That’s why we’ve made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

Egan goes on to write that such password sharing "may cause problems for the employers that they are not anticipating." Two of those potential problems: potential discrimination claims and liability for the loss of personal data. She ends with what seems like a veiled warning to nosy employers: "We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges."

The skeptical might smirk at the statement "Facebook takes your privacy seriously," and when it comes to this issue of employers requesting Facebook passwords, the skepticism isn't entirely misplaced.

There's a very good reason Facebook should be concerned about this trend and it has nothing to do with privacy: more and more third parties understand just how valuable and useful the personal information contained on Facebook is and some are deciding they want access to it. That means that Facebook won't just have to deal with criminals who want to scam and hack their way into Facebook accounts; they'll increasingly have to deal with more benevolent forces, like employers.

The risk: at a point, some Facebook users may decide that their Facebook accounts are more of a liability than an asset -- in their current form at least. This could result in a variety of behaviors which aren't beneficial to Facebook. The extreme case is that the most concerned users will shutter their Facebook accounts, but the more likely scenarios are bad for Facebook too. If users start posting less information, being more cautious about who they friend, defriending individuals with whom they have weak ties, and using fake or partial names (eg. their first and middle names instead of their first and last names), Facebook could find that its most important assets -- its userbase and social graph -- become quite a bit less valuable.

Unfortunately for Facebook. it's not clear that this unwelcome trend is one that it will be able to fight off. Even if employers decide to mind their business, the genie is out of the bottle. Put simply, Facebook's relationship with the world is changing and ubiquity is not necessarily going to be its friend going forward.

Patricio Robles

Published 23 March, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2429 more posts from this author

Comments (7)

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Susan Johnson

As you astutely point out, Patricio, Facebook is only speaking out on this issue because of the direct impact to their business.

The fig leaf of taking their user's privacy to heart is a convenient, but transparent, cover for them.

Make no mistake, they know that smart people are seeing this issue take root, and these smart folk are deleting their FB accounts.

Why wouldn't they? The putative benefit of having their friends see that "they have a headache today" or that "they're drunk in Ibiza" is small compared to the definite drawback of their employer finding out that they are a malingerer or a drunkard.

over 4 years ago

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Kevin Cook

How come any employer ask for facebook login details? Shouldn't he share his own account detals in return to do a good barter :)
Hard to believe post !!

over 4 years ago

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Shalina

This is quite an important post as it highlights one of the biggest threats to facebook in that it relies heavily on its information - another good post Patricio thanks

over 4 years ago

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Zoe Bosward, Experienced Online Marketing Manager, UK at Job hunting in Derby UK

Is this really happening enough to call it a trend? I am doubtful.

More likely is that Facebook are deflecting other criticism about their privacy policy by using this as a PR opportunity.

Would be interested to know how this stands with respective countries' Date Protection Acts too.

over 4 years ago

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Adrian Goodsell

I'm with Kevin and Zoe on this one. How many examples of this have we actually seen (particularly in the UK)? Facebook making a statement on it doesn't necessarily equate to a 'worrying trend'.

Saying that, if there is a trend (and I'm not saying there isn't - I'm just asking for some evidence) then it couldn't be more detrimental to all parties involved.

over 4 years ago

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Social-Hire.com

This is a real hot potato in the recruitment world right now. Whilst Zoe's point that this is yet to be a trend is quite possibly true, what is also true is that this story has had massive media coverage - and so in terms of reputational damage to Facebook is potentially very significant.

There's a different but related issue over at LinkedIn too. Recruiters are noting that more and more professional candidates are wary of updating their profiles for fear that the alerts that this activity triggers will draw unwanted attention to their job-change aspirations.

In our view candidates need a separate profile on a separate network to ensure that recruiters only gain access to the information that the candidate chose to disclose. It will be interesting to watch and see whether this is how things play out.

over 4 years ago

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Paul Boswell

I doubt employers are specifically looking to screen "nightmare" employees with Facebook information. Their desire to obtain a detailed dossier on every applicant's life is a more disturbing trend known as "corporate voyeurism." Employers can and do discriminate in hiring for hundreds of reasons unrelated to the candidate's ability to do the job. The code phrase you'll often hear is, "is he/she a good fit?" Those innocent photos of your younger children may raise red flags with a hiring manager: this person may ask for time off work to care for a sick child or may ask to leave early to taxi children around to various after school activities. This is an inconvenience and cost to the employer. Blog comments about starting a family can raise a red flag that the candidate is just looking for maternity benefits. High risk hobbies can be a red flag. Evidence of strong religious beliefs may be interpreted as a candidate who may not make themselves available for work on religious holidays. Facebook users should heed the warnings in the Miranda Rights given to accused criminals: "Anything you say can and will be used against you."

over 4 years ago

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