Facebook Threatens Legal Action Against Employers Asking for Your Password

Megan Garber, The Atlantic
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Megan Garber, The Atlantic
March 23, 2012, 10:07 a.m.

Face­book fol­lows the news just like you do. And it has been pay­ing at­ten­tion to the weird and wor­ry­ing new trend that em­ploy­ers have asked pro­spect­ive em­ploy­ees for their Face­book pass­words dur­ing the hir­ing pro­cess.

On Fri­day, Face­book, in the name of “pro­tect­ing your pass­words and pri­vacy,” has made it a vi­ol­a­tion of its State­ment of Rights and Re­spons­ib­il­it­ies to “share or so­li­cit a Face­book pass­word.”

“We don’t think em­ploy­ers should be ask­ing pro­spect­ive em­ploy­ees to provide their pass­words, be­cause we don’t think it’s right the thing to do,” Erin Egan, Face­book’s chief pri­vacy of­ficer, ex­plains. “But it also may cause prob­lems for the em­ploy­ers that they are not an­ti­cip­at­ing. For ex­ample, if an em­ploy­er sees on Face­book that someone is a mem­ber of a pro­tec­ted group (e.g. over a cer­tain age) that em­ploy­er may open them­selves up to claims of dis­crim­in­a­tion if they don’t hire that per­son.”

But! It’s not just that shar­ing or so­li­cit­ing pass­words is now a vi­ol­a­tion of Face­book’s terms of ser­vice. “We’ll take ac­tion to pro­tect the pri­vacy and se­cur­ity of our users,” Egan notes, “wheth­er by en­ga­ging poli­cy­makers or, where ap­pro­pri­ate, by ini­ti­at­ing leg­al ac­tion, in­clud­ing by shut­ting down ap­plic­a­tions that ab­use their priv­ileges.”

In oth­er words, Face­book will prob­ably sue parties who ask for its users’ pass­words.

The lan­guage also leaves open the pos­sib­il­ity of su­ing users who vol­un­tar­ily share their pass­words with oth­ers: “You will not,” its says, “share your pass­word, (or in the case of de­velopers, your secret key), let any­one else ac­cess your ac­count, or do any­thing else that might jeop­ard­ize the se­cur­ity of your ac­count.” While, of course, it’s hard to ima­gine any scen­ario in which Face­book would ac­tu­ally be­ne­fit from su­ing one of its users for a pass­word-share, the lan­guage sug­gests at least that pos­sib­il­ity.

Which, whoa—I can’t think of any­thing that comes close to a pre­ced­ent for this in terms of Face­book’s re­la­tion­ship with its users: su­ing people on users’ be­half! (And maybe even su­ing users on users’ be­half!)

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Ex­cept, of course, it wouldn’t be just on users’ be­half; the no­tion­al suits would be as much about pro­tect­ing Face­book as about pro­tect­ing its le­gions of ac­count-hold­ers. “If you are a Face­book user,” Egan notes, “you should nev­er have to share your pass­word, let any­one ac­cess your ac­count, or do any­thing that might jeop­ard­ize the se­cur­ity of your ac­count or vi­ol­ate the pri­vacy of your friends.” The key phrase be­ing, ac­tu­ally, vi­ol­ate the pri­vacy of your friends. The policy up­date is a strik­ing ad­mis­sion of the value of the con­nec­tions that live and grow on Face­book’s plat­form: A vi­ol­a­tion of one user’s pri­vacy through pass­word ac­cess is, im­pli­citly, the vi­ol­a­tion of the pri­vacy of all of that user’s friends and fam­ily and cowork­ers and former cowork­ers and ran­dom ac­quaint­ances and ele­ment­ary-school class­mates and bowl­ing-league team­mates and former flames. 

And, sure: It’s easy to see Fri­day’s an­nounce­ment simply as a con­veni­ent PR play on the part of a net­work that is bet­ter known for vi­ol­a­tions, rather than de­fenses, of its users’ pri­vacy. And that likely has at least something to do with the policy change. It’s more in­ter­est­ing, though, to see the up­date as a re­mind­er of the core and cru­cial role of the net­work as­pect of Face­book’s so­cial net­work. On Face­book, pri­vacy isn’t per­son­al, and it isn’t private. It is col­lect­ive. It is shared. And that means that the vi­ol­a­tion of pri­vacy is shared as well.

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