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.