Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blurring the Lines of Human Rights?

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.


  1. Rush, this is a great issue to post about! It has become a norm to check people’s Facebook, Twitter, etc to determine their qualification for a job. This norm is just something that employees understand happens and therefore most employees do not put certain types of information on their pages. This is a limitation of one’s freedom to express him/herself on Facebook as he or she wants. The issue in the scenario you present arose because they asked for his password to his accounts. Usually, companies just access a person’s account to find out the information they need. This does not make the occurrences any more acceptable without asking the employee; in such cases the employers are operating with the logic that if it on the internet it is fair game. I do not know how we could change this system as the internet is embedded in our daily lives so it is going to a part of employment now and later. We can begin by redefining our definition of “ privacy” to address whether the internet is part of the "privacy sphere" or not.

  2. I think it is really interesting that you brought up the legal side of this switch from physical to digital mail. Personally, I hadn't ever thought about there being legal issues with checking someone's email. Since there are these laws in place protecting privacy with paper mail, should there not be the same for electronic mail? It seems reasonable to me that a law similar to the one we have now for paper mail be passed for electronic mail.

  3. This is very interesting. I, for one, find that demanding private information such as personal passwords is extremely morally reprehensible. What is even more disturbing is the fact that laws of supply and demand create scenarios in which we must sometimes forgo what we hold as rights, and often arbitrarily. Unless a higher authority steps in to reprove such actions, victims often have no choice but to "sack up". In a realist paradigm, those in power hold the cards. If Officer Collins wants this job (an increasing commodity), and there is a greater supply than demand (as seems the case), then Collins is in no place to make demands. Morality requires authority.

  4. Our individual right to privacy shouldn't be affected by technological advancement. The same laws that apply to mail, for instance, should apply to its electronic form. I agree that, in most cases, the substance that is posted on the internet has been made public; it is available to anyone who is capable of going online. However, even communication websites like facebook and twitter have their own privacy settings. If an individual has made an account on such a website and has limited the viewing audience through such settings, his/her privacy should be protected under the law. Supplying an employer with passwords to a personal account is like handing them your opened mail; doing so would be an invasion of an individual’s right to privacy.
    All of us (at least most I would hope) know that it is unwise to post pictures of ourselves participating in illicit activities on social networking sites, especially when it is “available” to potential employers. However, places looking to hire “professionals” should be more concerned with the work these individuals will be able to accomplish, rather than the lifestyle they carry outside of the office. Of course, the circumstances change if the individual holds a position that requires him/her to be a role model (athletes, politicians, etc.). Although these individuals should be given the same right, it would be too much of a risk to post such substance on the internet.

  5. I was shocked to find out about the variance in laws when the medium suddenly changes due to technological advancement. Surprising, I dare say it's even fundamentally upsetting, at least to me. I do however, see the arguments being made; that the internet is a public forum, as to where the private sphere is more related to the physical aspect of one's life. I still think the definition of privacy should certainly be updated, as the internet is no longer a public sphere everywhere. There are passwords for reasons, folks. Perhaps my argument is too simplistic, I'm uncertain.


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