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Facebook privacy: Can firms legally demand passwords from job applicants?

On Friday Facebook criticized the new practice of screening job applicants as 'alarming,' and some employment specialists say it could expose firms to legal land mines.

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Some private employers are asking potential employees for their Facebook passwords. Is that going to far?

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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Social Intelligence Corp. seeks to help its corporate clients “gain a deeper insight into both professional and personal characteristics of potential employees, identifying negative behaviors and activities” as well as uncovering positive attributes.

To do that, the background-screening firm, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., looks at electronic media – think Facebook and Twitter.

But while Social Intelligence says it only uses publicly available information, some other private employers are going further, asking potential employees for their Facebook log-ins and passwords – an action that Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, decried on Friday.

For some time now in this age of social media hyper-connectivity, job seekers and others have had to confront the reality that what happens on social media sites does not necessarily stay on social media sites.

“We are in the age of transparency,” says John Challenger of Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago. “And, in an age of transparency, there are some risks.”

However, some employment specialists say employers’ use of social media to investigate future employees is potentially full of legal land mines, especially if is done by the company itself without consideration for federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Some employment executives say asking a job candidate for log-ins and passwords is a violation of privacy.

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