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Employers violate privacy rights with password requests

Employers violate privacy rights with password requests (credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor) Employers violate privacy rights with password requests (credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor)
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Social media is evolving faster than our legal systems can keep up. Users are concerned about what future employers could see, and now most have their Facebook pages almost completely blocked for anyone but their friends.

Even this isn’t enough, however, as some employers are now demanding their employees’ Facebook passwords. The most recent example of this is the firing of a teacher’s aide in Michigan for refusing to give a school administrator her password. These demands, and any repercussions stemming from employees not agreeing to such draconian terms, violate a basic right to privacy and ignore any sort of due process.

Employees who stand up for their privacy rights can face serious consequences. The teacher’s aide was terminated after refusing to give her Facebook password to a school administrator after a parent complained about a humorous photo posted over a year ago. The photo was completely innocuous, with the photo being a “picture of a co-worker’s pants around her ankles and a pair of shoes, with the caption ‘Thinking of you,’  ” according to the local TV station, WSBT. While this joke may have been of a more adult nature, the teacher’s aide posted this photo on her own time, on a private computer.

The aide was well within her rights to not give the school administration her password. The school decided that without seeing the photo, they were forced to assume the worst and thus terminated her. This ruling dismisses the basic premise of innocent until proven guilty. Dismissals on grounds as weak as this create a terrible precedent that would allow employers to terminate employees for no rhyme or reason.

When two users become Facebook friends, there is an implicit understanding that only the user will be signed in under the corresponding account, and thus only the user has the ability to see their private posts and photos. The instant an employer logs into their employee’s account, he or she has breached the privacy of not only that employee, but also every one of the employee’s friends. If this practice becomes commonplace, the entire point of having “friends only” posts becomes moot. While I staunchly advocate that users only post statuses and photos they are comfortable with the whole internet seeing, there should still be some expectation of privacy from complete strangers. Facebook has publicly come out against this practice of “shoulder surfing” and echoes the sentiment that this is an egregious violation of privacy for both the employee and her friends. Many states are also pondering legislation to prohibit such practices due to violation of privacy rights.

Privacy is a right that we as individuals expect, but is hard to keep and maintain. Our only hope for keeping our private lives private is to stop these sorts of practices early, and to continue to fight for our right to keep our work and personal lives as separate as possible.