The Atlantic recently published an article in which they describe the Maryland Department of Corrections as requesting the usernames and passwords of Officer Robert Collins’ social media accounts as part of their background testing procedure. These accounts included Facebook, e-mail, twitter, and any other type of password-protected, seemingly private online account. While background checks, especially in jobs such as these, have proven themselves to be essential in the hiring process, this situation is an over-the-top, blatant invasion of this man’s privacy:
With the nearly exponential rise in social media over the past few years, public domain on the Internet is becoming more and more integrated into the selection process of employers, graduate schools, colleges, and even high schools. To me, public is public. What is accessible to anyone and everyone over the web is exactly that—accessible to all. If I post a picture of myself on Facebook chugging a pitcher of beer, I am in essence taking full responsibility of that picture, I own it. Once I put it out there in the depths of the Internet, I should fully expect that picture to be accessible to anyone—even the aforementioned institutions.
Where this story differs, however, is in accessing this man’s private sphere. Now I realize that many people hold it to be true that there is no private space on the Internet. I for one, as part of this technological generation, do believe that private space should be respected online. Checking one’s personal e-mail accounts, for example, is a gross invasion of this personal space. If we are to shift from physical mail to electronic mail (which we certainly are), then we must also be willing to shift the privacy that comes with physical mail to that of electronic mail. The mail-of-old, as I’ll call it, is carefully protected by federal laws. This one for example, clearly states that the unlawful acquisition of mail can leave the perpetrator in prison for up to five years.
While Officer Robert Collins may not have been subjected to a clearly human rights violation, his rights were certainly violated. So where do we go from here? Are we to continue treating the Internet as an opportune forum for public space, or can we recognize it as an increasingly modernized way of doing the very same things that we used to do? In the latter case, as the Internet becomes more and more central to our lives, we must also respect it as such.