Hey! My new website is Section 411. It's a lot like this site, except it's about 100% newer. Click here to check it out!

Facebook privacy rights: a primer

Things have been pretty crazy in the blogosphere lately. With the Indians selling off All-star after All-star, I haven’t had a chance to discuss this story yet. And it’s not because it’s not important; it is. For those who didn’t read the original story, a high school in Mississippi is being sued for coercing a teenager into surrendering her Facebook credentials to have a shot at making the cheerleading team. As Ars Technica notes, the girl never used Facebook during school hours, but the cheerleading coach threatened punishment if the order to surrender her Facebook credentials was not obeyed.

This isn’t the first time it’s happened; indeed, a much more well-known case happened in Bozeman, Montana, when all government employee candidates were required to surrender all of their login information for every social network. After a public outcry and Web protest, the restriction was lifted. This case, however, already occurred and involves a teenager who may have not known what her own rights were.

It’s well-known that companies use Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn and even Google to do “background checks” on employees. This is not only understandable, but it’s an excellent use of today’s technology to weed out candidates before they even walk in the door without spending more than 15 minutes online. The good news is that Facebook lets you limit parts of your profile to different audiences, LinkedIn isn’t really social networking as much as it is business networking, and…seriously, who uses MySpace anymore? (I think if you have a MySpace profile that an employer confirms is you, that’s a point against you. Just my advice.) Google’s a little bit trickier, but most of us have common enough names that anything too embarassing is lost in the search results, and ultimately, Google’s search engine keeps us all honest and makes sure we don’t publish anything we might regret later online. The point is, what companies do for the most part is simply do some fact-finding about who they might hire; it’s no more an invasion of privacy than calling your references on your resume.

The difference in this school case, however, is that with the girl’s password, there are no privacy restrictions. Not only could the school administrators view what was public for her friends and private for everyone else, they could view things that were previously private to everyone except her. This means Facebook messages, applications used, every friend the girl has ever had and every photo the girl has ever been tagged in. According to Ars, the account was used to read a private discussion regarding the cheerleading squad and information found there was used to “publicly [reprimand], [punish], and [humiliate]” the girl.

Throwing aside the ridiculous response of airing out laundry publicly instead of behind closed doors, this was a completely illegal search. If you remember from your days in high school, school administrators had the right to search your property at any time, provided it was on school grounds. That means they could search your locker, they could search your backpack and they could search your laptop if you brought it with you to school. Because the student never opened Facebook on school computers, this was completely outside the scope of the school and thus, the cheerleading coach was overstepping his bounds.

Ars Technica’s recommendation (in the last paragraph) warns readers not to store information they wish to remain private on social networking sites. While there’s something to be said for this (software security glitches or bugs might turn private information into public information unexpectedly), there’s nothing wrong with holding conversations on social networking sites about sensitive topics – that’s not only a reasonable use, that’s what private messaging is for. Facebook has said that messages will remain private and will only be able to be seen by their recipients.

Ultimately, if you find yourself in a situation where you’re supposed to surrender your social networking account credentials, fight it. Ask for a warrant. There is no reason anyone except you should ever have access to your account (including friends, partners, dogs, whatever). If they need a certain bit of information, its up to your discretion whether or not you share that with them, and if you choose not to, they’ll have to live with it. (Keep in mind, information you send to a private recipient can easily be forwarded to someone you don’t want to read. Know who to trust.) Also, know that if Facebook is ordered by the court, they can surrender your information without you needing to give up your password. If the search is legal, whoever wants the information can get a court order.

Now I’m not a legal expert by any means, so while I hope you heed my advice, if you find yourself in a legal matter, seek professional counsel. Just don’t let yourself be bullied by people who try to take advantage of social networking’s accessibility.