Tagged: Facebook


Banning Forced Disclosure of Social Network Passwords and the Polygraph Precedent

The Maryland General Assembly has just become the first state legislature to vote to ban employers’ from requiring employees to reveal their Facebook or other social network passwords.  Other states are considering similar bills, and Senators Schumer and Blumenthal are pushing the idea in Congress.

As often happens in privacy debates, there are concerns from industry that well-intentioned laws will have dire consequences — Really Dangerous People might get into positions of trust, so we need to permit employers to force their employees to open up their Facebook accounts to their bosses.

Also, as often happens in privacy debates, people breathlessly debate the issue as though it is completely new and unprecedented.

We do have a precedent, however.  In 1988, Congress enacted the Employee Polygraph Protection Act  (EPPA).  The EPPA says that employers don’t get to know everything an employee is thinking.  Polygraphs are flat-out banned in almost all employment settings.  The law was signed by President Reagan, after Secretary of State George Shultz threatened to resign rather than take one.

The idea behind the EPPA and the new Maryland bill are similar — employees have a private realm where they can think and be a person, outside of the surveillance of the employer.  Imagine a polygraph if your boss asked what you really thought about him/her.  Imagine your social networking activities if your boss got to read your private messages and impromptu thoughts.

For private sector employers, the EPPA has quite narrow exceptions, such as for counter-intelligence, armored car personnel, and employees who are suspected of causing economic loss.  That list of exceptions can be a useful baseline to consider for social network passwords.

In summary — longstanding and bipartisan support to block this sort of intrusion into employees’ private lives.  The social networks themselves support this ban on having employers require the passwords.  I think we should, too.


How Useful is Facebook Users’ Information?

A lot has been written on Facebook and its users loss of privacy. In fact, for some, Facebook and loss of privacy have become synonyms. A major fear involves the use of Facebook users’ personal information by information aggregators who will use the data to target the sale of products.  I do not intend to contest here that Facebook users disclose a lot of personal information. But, I want to look at how accurate is the information that Facebook users reveal on Facebook. 

When people surf the Internet their personal information, websites and searches are collected by cookies. As I have written, people tend to disregard these privacy threats at least partly due to their lack of visibility. Even those who know that their information can be collected by cookies, tend to forget it as they use the Internet on a daily basis.  As a result the information collected by cookies reveals relatively true preferences. Cookies will reveal embarrassing or secret facts, such as visits to pornography sites or to  medical sites to investigate a worrying medical condition.

But Facebook is different. Facebook users are constantly aware they are being viewed. True, they may not be thinking about the companies that may eventually aggregate the information. But, for sure they are thinking of the hundreds of friends who will be reading their status updates, examining their favorite books, favorite movies and linked websites. Facebook users “package” themselves. They present themselves to the world the way they want to be perceived. Their real preferences and tastes may be somewhat or even completely different from those they present on Facebook. A criminal law professor may have in her Facebook library collection legal theory books, while in fact in her spare time she is an avid purchaser and reader of chick lit books. A twenty year old college student may want to appear cool placing links to trendy music, although his real passion remains the collection of Star Wars figures.

Some information on Facebook, such as date of birth or marriage status is less likely to be mispresented by users and provides rich ground for data mining.  But Facebook users “packaging”  raises two issues. Companies seeking to target consumers with products they actually want to purchase may find Facebook information less useful than believed. And from a privacy perspective, it is not merely the disclosure of true personal information that we should be concerned about but the creation of false or misleading  individual profiles by data mining companies that can eventually change the information and consumption options available to these Facebook users.


Unfriending, an experiment

Too many friends. This in not a problem that most of us would have considered before the phenomenon of social networking, but it is real enough that “unfriend” and the gerund form “unfriending” have not only made it into the New Oxford American Dictionary this year, “unfriend” was named the 2009 Word of the Year.

As my facebook network mushroomed to over 300 friends I realized that the breadth of my facebook network was limiting its depth. There were things I would like to update my friends about, but did not feel like sharing with all of my fbf’s (facebook friends, not to be confused with bff’s). Thus began the unfriending experiment, or RIF (reduction in friends) if you prefer.

My first approach was to unfriend everyone who I believed also had too many friends. Anyone with 800 fbf’s is simply not discerning enough for my liking, and I did not consider the fact that this lack of discernment may have been the only reason they were friends with me to be particularly redeeming. The first wave of unfriending was satisfying, but it left me wanting more (well less actually).

Next to go were professional acquaintances who did not seem to use facebook very much. Still too many friends, hard choices would need to be made. I unfriended several people that I genuinely like in the real world, but who use facebook in ways I don’t care for – the main one being to post links to their twitter feeds or blog posts.

By this stage I was down under 200 and I realized that if I nixed all of the spouses of friends I would be able to streamline even further. Old school acquaintances who I had never much cared for were the next victims of this online massacre. They probably should have been the first, but I was in a sentimental mood when I began. My unfriending mania reached its peak when I realized that I was in shooting distance of 100. Some arbitrary choices were made and all of a sudden I was down to a manageable 99 friends. Mission accomplished.

None of my unfriended friends have complained, I expect few have even noticed. I post more regularly to facebook now and read my remaining friend’s posts with more interest. In fact, I am so happy with my small circle of facebook friends that I am thinking of adding a few more.