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Police Departments Now Screening Private Communications Of Applicants

by Sean P. Aune | November 15, 2010November 15, 2010 8:00 am PDT

We’ve all heard stories about how employers are now checking out social media profiles of applicants, and last year there was even a story about how the city of Bozeman, MT was asking potential hires for their passwords so they could really dig deep.  In general people have reacted negatively to these stores, but what if it was someone being hired to protect you and your family, say a policeman for instance.  Would you want their lives read like an open book by the department looking to hire them?  Well, that’s exactly what’s starting to happen in police departments all across the United States.

sheriffAccording to a report from USA Today, there is a growing trend of police departments asking applicants for their social media passwords, access to their text messages and logs of their e-mails. According to a recent survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), of the 728 departments that responded, more than a third said they now review social media profiles before hiring.  This was followed up by more than 100 agencies attending a recent IACP conference saying they ask for waivers from applicants to access this information, or are in the process of setting policies to do so.

Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, cited three instances where these polices have helped thus far:

  • In Massachusetts, Malden Police Chief Jim Holland, whose agency has requested electronic message logs, said a recruit’s text messages revealed past threats of suicide, resulting in disqualification.
  • In New Jersey, Middletown Police Chief Robert Oches said a candidate was disqualified for posting racy photographs of himself with scantily clad women.
  • At the Florida conference, Crawford narrated a video full of officers’ inappropriate Facebook postings, from sexually explicit photographs to racially charged commentary. All of it, he said, argues for better background checks for incoming recruits.

Mr. Pasco went on to say, “If you post something on Facebook, it should be something you wouldn’t mind seeing in the newspaper.”

In general I agree with him, and I actually got in a disagreement with someone recently about whether or not I should have my Facebook account locked so only friends could see it.  She said she would never hire someone with an unlocked account because they obviously don’t understand social networking, to which I argued why lock it if you have nothing to hide?  My rule of thumb is it keeps me honest and makes sure I don’t post anything questionable.

All of that said, I think these police policies are going a bit far.  Text messages and e-mails, in my mind, or no different than having a phone conversation or sending a letter through the regular mail, and both of those activities are considered private without a court order.  Yes, a police department could get you to sign a waiver to tap your phone, but have you ever heard of them doing that for applicants?  I certainly haven’t.

Just because there is a history of these communications doesn’t mean they should be treated any differently than any other private communication.  You hired people for years without these technologies, why should it be any different now?

Yes, Facebook or other social networks are public, have at them, but when it comes to texts and e-mails, I have to draw a line.  And if you don’t draw a line, where does it stop?  Will they next ask for personal journals?  To see your credit card bills so they know where you shop?  Just because your texts are clean, who’s to say you haven’t been going to a “massage parlor” once a week for years?  Opening the door on your privacy even a crack is a slippery slope because then people always want more.

What say you?  Are the police going too far by looking at private communications?


Sean P. Aune

Sean P. Aune has been a professional technology blogger since July 2007, but his love of tech dates back to at least 1976 when his parents bought...

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