Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords

Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing | 3/28/2012 | 86 comments

Alan Reiter
If companies ask job applicants for their usernames and passwords to access their social networking sites, CIOs should put a stop to it. It's for the good of the job applicant and the company. It's also for the good of the CIO, and if that's not enough, it's what Shakespeare would have suggested.

The most recent brouhaha began last week when Associated Press published an article about job applicants being asked by human resources departments of companies and government agencies for their social networking usernames and passwords. For example, one statistician in New York was asked to turn over his log-in information so the interviewer could see his private profile. The statistician refused and withdrew his application, but other applicants sometimes hand over this data.

AP says that asking for usernames and passwords seems more prevalent by government agencies, such as for law enforcement jobs. The article also notes that the city of Bozeman, Montana had asked job applicants for log-in information for their email, personal Websites, and social networking sites. The city has since stopped asking for this information. In 2009, I wrote about this in Internet Evolution, a sister site to Enterprise Efficiency.

So the AP story isn't bringing up a new trend, but it's highlighting what might be an increasing one. With the poor job market, too many employers feel they have the right to ask job applicants for log-in data. Even if organizations aren't asking for usernames and passwords, they sometimes ask applicants to log into their personal sites on a company computer so company executives could see all the information, AP notes.

Facebook -- which certainly isn't a poster child for protecting user privacy -- issued a statement condemning organizations that asked for its log-in credentials. The company said, "This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability."

Facebook says, "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." Facebook told the blog Ars Technica that it didn't have any immediate plans to sue employers who asked for log-in data.

However, I wouldn't be surprised if Facebook is talking to Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). The senators sent a letter to the US Department of Justice and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, asking them to investigate whether demanding log-in credentials violated any laws. The senators are drafting legislation to close any loopholes allowing employers to ask for such information.

An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer says asking for usernames and passwords is an invasion of privacy, and a Washington, D.C. area lawyer says it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

So from a legal standpoint, companies must be cognizant of possible ramifications. If a job applicant's private information influences a decision not to hire the person, under certain circumstances it could be considered discrimination. A woman who posts privately that she's pregnant and isn't hired might have a legal case against the company.

But even putting legal considerations aside, CIOs should demand their organizations not ask for log-in credentials. How often have IT managers railed against employees who left out their usernames passwords for anyone to see? How often have IT managers emphasized the importance of not sharing authentication credentials with anyone?

Should companies even trust a job applicant who would be willing to reveal log-in credentials? It's a security breach. An applicant could agree to log into a company's computer -- without the HR interviewer seeing the username and password -- to allow unrestricted viewing of personal Websites. But the computer could be capturing keystrokes.

CIOs should tell their human resources departments and even their CEOs that it's verboten to request a job applicant's log-in credentials. Asking for this information strikes at the pith and marrow of what IT departments should protect. As Polonius said in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "This above all, to thine own self be true..."

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Alan Reiter   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   4/1/2012 11:04:33 PM
Re: Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords
Hi Broadway,

Yes, the poor job market is causing all sorts of problems, sometimes desperate problems, for job seekers. Too many employers think they can ask for user names and passwords because job applicants really need the job and there are so many applicants who would be willing to comply.
User Ranking: Blogger
Alan Reiter   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   4/1/2012 11:01:18 PM
Re: Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords
Hi geeky,

Many job applicants understand that handing over user names and passwords isn't a good idea or perhaps even legal. But when you're desperate for a job, it might not be as important as being able to feed yourself and your family and paying for housing.

User Ranking: Blogger
Alan Reiter   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   4/1/2012 10:58:17 PM
Re: Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords
Hi megadl,

Employers are concerned that job candidates have character flaws, have engaged in illegal or questionable activities or don't have the right personality for the job. It's not just what applicants could post in the future, but what they have posted that makes them a good fit -- or not -- for the company. Employers want to view a total profile of candidates, and looking at private information on social networking sites is one way to accomplish this.

I'm not condoning asking for user names and passwords, but employers don't want to be caught unawares -- even if what they are asking for isn't appropriate.
User Ranking: Blogger
Alan Reiter   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   4/1/2012 10:51:33 PM
Re: Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords
Hi angelfuego,

Even if most people have nothing to hide, handing over log-in credentials is a security breach. Also, just because you have nothing to hide doesn't mean you want certain people knowing specific items about you.

However, what you might think is boring might be interesting -- good or bad -- to employers. You can't always tell what employers might consider positive or negative.
User Ranking: Blogger   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   3/31/2012 11:22:51 PM
Where have all the Google+ gone.. long time ago
I was reading through the comments, and it stuck me, we are all taking about Facebook as social media.. Twitter some of us. Wonder how many of us are active elsewhere, and how active.. Google+ is the most obvious significant other.. but Diaspora.. or Unthink.. even Reddit with its new CEO.. or StumbleUpon with its freshly repainted UX and so on.. 
User Ranking: Blogger   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   3/31/2012 10:54:58 PM
Re: security
I personally always conduct myself as a professional woman because I am so I don't have anything to hide from any employer, however, it is a privacy issue.

I think you make a very important point here. I may have nothing to hide, but I still want my personal life kept private. 
User Ranking: Blogger   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   3/31/2012 10:48:54 PM
Discrimination based on social media, stilll is
My guilt may be to the extent of eating turkey like a pig last Thanksgiving, but that is not something that I should be made to share, unless I want to.

If companies can start asking for login credentials, and they can, what comes next? Medical records? Religious affiliation? Discrimination based on my Facebook profile, is still discrimination. 

As some of our readers have pointed out, once we enter the company as an employee we have to comply with the social media policy it has in place. But that restriction should probably be limited to our public profile, and our representation of an employee of the company.  
User Ranking: Blogger
Skr2011   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   3/31/2012 9:44:22 PM
Re: Password faux pas
@impactnow Ok I see your point BUT Facebook is not illegal......
Skr2011   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   3/31/2012 9:31:38 PM
Re: Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords
@ Broadway You are so right! Employers are being brutal. Last year (2011) was my worst year professionally. It doesn't help that I am in California where unemployment is still over 10%!!
Syerita Turner   Don't Ask Job Applicants for Passwords   3/31/2012 5:09:26 PM
Re: security
@ Mr. Reiter, does that make it right? I don't think so. I personally always conduct myself as a professional woman because I am so I don't have anything to hide from any employer, however, it is a privacy issue. If I don't have privacy with my employer or potential employer then I don't need to be employed there. I understand that the choices are slim and the job market is very particular because it is their money but that still does not give anyone the right to dig into my personal space. Would you freely give up your information when asked?
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