Employ me: Where do we draw the privacy line?

The internet has been a pretty great thing for most of us. Information is everywhere. It has never been easier to educate yourself in the history of mankind. The libraries of the world are at your fingertips — scientific theories and classic literature are just a Google search away. Not only that, but on the “non serious” side we have social networks, video games, connectivity — all great things that enrich our daily lives.

Regardless of work or play, we all use the internet daily — and it’s such a secondary thought now-a-days that we don’t realize one major thing:

We are leaving our fingerprints everywhere.

Years ago this was only a slight problem for those of us who posted on community forums or commented on content somewhere on the internet. There was always a chance that someone could find out your alias and backtrack your opinion using a search engine of their choice, finding out more than anyone cared to share about their personal lives.

It was easy to get around this though — you just wouldn’t have your alias anywhere near where your personal information was. This way someone searching your name wouldn’t be able to connect the dots. Even then, outside of the occasionally crazy internet troll there really wasn’t much of a threat. What, some random guy in Nebraska is going to find out your dogs name? Big deal, right?

Then MySpace sprouted up on the heels of Friendster — primarily aimed at a younger, less tech-savvy audience. Suddenly everyone had a giant social beacon that listed all of their personal information. Here was a database of pictures, friends, hobbies and sometimes even the dormant remains of relationships gone sour. It was like a blog, but with even tackier graphics.

Here was everything for the world to see.

Many students (most underage) ended up posting pictures of their daily activities on the internet. Some of these activities included things that were less than legal, but who cares, right? Only your friends looked at this stuff anyway.

While it was an option to make your page private, most people didn’t. After all, that would hamper how many friends you had — a virtual social symbol that was important to many. So pages were left wide open for the world to see.

Then Facebook slid into the fray. Initially a more “mature” type of social network aimed at college students, the first iteration of the site required you to enter in a college e-mail before it would let you register an account. This rule was abolished after awhile and so was the shroud of privacy over most accounts. Suddenly, everyone’s pages were at least partially visible. Just like MySpace, the world had an invitation to anything you’d posted.

Still, most didn’t see either of these things as a threat. After all, who cares what anyone does in their spare time? It was just a social page for friends to look at — or for new friends to get an idea of your personality.

Alas, the false sense of security quickly faded as teens realized that the visitors to their pages weren’t always interested in becoming their friend. Stalkers, malicious predators — even police — all used the social networking sites to find out all kinds of information that their “prey” would otherwise probably not want them to know. Recently (or at least it is now becoming public knowledge) employers have started to use these social networking sites to find out information about prospective employees.

This has caused many to go into “lock down” mode. Many professors, law-enforcement agents and others employed in various fields are shutting down their pages or otherwise locking them up as tight as possible, afraid that their job might be in danger. After all, everyone tends to vent online a little bit — and no one wants their boss to see that. Not only that, but young professionals suddenly realized that they were at risk at becoming unemployable by basis of their outside activities.

Just locking down your personal page isn’t enough, either. Pages that were once public could’ve been cached somewhere — and friends who are often less tech savvy are eager to “tag” photos of you, linking you to other pages you have no control over. Not to mention these social pages often listen our interests and personal goals, so even if you aren’t the teenager posting pictures of yourself completely wasted on the internet for everyone to see you are still putting yourself at risk.

However, our fingerprints are not just left on these social networking sites. They are found everywhere we go on the internet, little tidbits that can easily be traced back to us. If you have a name that isn’t very common then you are even more likely to be judged by your search listings — and while this isn’t anything new, the advent of MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites has made it incredibly easy to dig up information on anyone. Not to mention other “people searches” such as Pipl that make it incredibly easy to find out personal details on anyone — and they even list your known favorite activities as cached by Facebook or other common sites. Knowing that our hobbies are out there for employers to see, should we hide them?

After all, what is a “good” activity or interest to an employer?

Without a doubt some seemingly harmless activities are virtual kryptonite to a career. Gamers are typically aware of the stereotype of stoner/slacker that plagues their hobby — specifically MMO gamers, such as ones that play World of Warcraft. Could the time they invest into games outside of their job harm their chances of getting a job? Could an employer see a favorite game listed on a page and suddenly slash off a candidate for a job because of it?

Such topics seem silly, but recently within the World of Warcraft community there was a large stir about the “Real ID” system. Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, was preparing to launch an update to their forums that would require posters to share their real name when they posted. The community went into uproar, one of the chief concerns being that they didn’t want their real names linked with their online activities. Many in the fields of higher education expressed great concern — how easy would it be to Google their names and find out that they played the game?

What about high-risk hobbies? Is an employer likely to hire a sky-diver or someone who enjoys track days on the weekend? While both of these might be “safe” they have a sort of negative shroud around them. Do you want to hire someone that you believe might be a liability to your health policy?

I’m sure some will look at the above argument and shrug. After all, hiding that you have a certain hobby is easy, right?

Well, what about having a disease or ailment?

A personal fear for me is that an employer will find out I have Crohn’s disease thanks to a quick Google search on my name. They could easily see that I had the disease and that I struggled with it. Would they want to hire me?

Sure, discriminating based on disease isn’t exactly a textbook legal thing — but how would I know? How would anyone?

They could simply say someone else was more qualified or that I just didn’t make it through some sort of test. My dream is to become a college professor and the market is extremely tough. Job postings typically get upwards of 500 applications. Wouldn’t my disease be a detriment? Doesn’t that put me at a disadvantage off the bat?

Right now an employer has the right to search what you do in your free time before and after you are hired. Is being in control of what you do off the clock a breach of privacy? Where do we draw the line? Is there a line anywhere?

I’m curious. What do you think?

One thought on “Employ me: Where do we draw the privacy line?

  1. Let’s just get back to basics. Stick to the application and the impression you get during the interview. Think about this…it works both ways. Just imagine how much you can find out about your boss that would be a little unpleasant, to say the least!

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