facebook_logoThe Maryland Department of Corrections has been asking new hires, and current staff seeking recertification, for their Facebook login information.

According to a letter issued by the ACLU (PDF link), Officer Robert Collins took a four month leave from his position with the Maryland Department of Corrections.  Upon returning from his break he had to go through the normal process for recertification which includes a fresh background check.  During his interview he was asked if he used any social media sites, when he confirmed that he uses Facebook, he was asked for his login information to the site so that they could review his messages, photos and wall postings for any illegal activity or signs of gang affiliations.  He reluctantly gave the information as he has privacy settings set as high as possible, and he was also told that they could check in with his account multiple times over the next month or two while they consider his reinstatement.

The ACLU has pointed out how this policy raises some serious legal questions, and they also go on to point out how law enforcement can’t access personal mail or phone calls without a court order, so how can Facebook be viewed any differently.  As we pointed out last Nov., law enforcement agencies across the United States have been adopting this policy, even going so far as to access text messages, personal e-mail accounts and so on.

While I certainly understand the concept of needing to do as thorough a background check as possible on law enforcement employees, there is some definite discrepancies here.  How is getting this deep into someone’s life any different than going into their home and doing a random search without a court order?  Just because something is digital and can be accessed from anywhere doesn’t make it any less of a private matter.  If you want to look at the public features of their account, that’s not an issue, but wanting complete access to their account to look through even their private messages is over the top in my book.  Yes, it could potentially reveal some illegal activity, but it could also reveal some private matters that could be hurtful to a person.  Perhaps they are discussing a personal tragedy inside their family that they would rather not have anyone know about.  What if there is information in their messages about their sexual orientation or religious affiliation, two pieces of information employers are not allowed to ask for when considering applicants.

Back in June of 2009, the city of Bozeman, MT instituted a similar policy for all potential city employees, but it was quickly dropped due to community pressure and media attention.  The ACLU cited this instance as an example in its letter to the Maryland DoC along with court cases that show judges have ruled that electronic communications are protected communications just as phone calls and e-mails are, so this is not some shot in the dark that Maryland has over stepped its bounds.  Will they change policy?  Who knows, but it is certainly a worrying trend we are seeing with more employers.

What say you?  Should an employer have a right to access your private electronic communications?

[via The Atlantic]