Digging Up Officers’ Digital Dirt - Technology and Communications - LawOfficer.com

Digging Up Officers’ Digital Dirt

Departments may want to back off



Valerie Van Brocklin | Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This is the fifth in a series of articles on officers’ rights, responsibilities and liabilities for what they post on the Internet. Last month in Are you Prepared to Be Cybervetted we ended with the question of just how deep can departments dig for digital dirt on job applicant and officers.

Give Us Your Username & Password
Consider this job applicant scenario posed by Jared Shelly in a March 2011 online article for Human Resource Executives:

Will you submit to a drug test?


Can you provide a few references?


Would you mind telling us your Facebook username and password?

Say what?

Shelly’s article, along with numerous others, was sparked by March 2011 headlines that Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Corrections was requiring applicants to provide their Facebook usernames and passwords. The case broke, however, not with a new job applicant but with a three-year DOC veteran who was re-applying after taking a leave of absence following his mother’s death.

Robert Collins says the department demanded the information. The department said any such information is voluntary, if an applicant refuses it’s not held against them. Either way, the practice upset Collins and the ACLU, who jumped into the case.

Collins provided the information but his take on the experience expressed what I hear from many recruits and officers across the country when it comes to their private Internet postings:

“Here I am, a U.S. citizen who hasn’t broken any laws and hasn’t committed any crimes and I have … an employer looking at my personal communications, my personal posts, my personal pictures [and] looking at my personal identifiable information where my religious beliefs, my political beliefs, my sexuality – all these things are possibly disclosed on this page.  … It’s an absolute and total invasion, overreach and overstep on their part. … As officers, we don’t forfeit our civil rights. … You can’t invade someone’s privacy.”

After the media uproar, the department suspended the policy for 45 days to review it. That time hadn’t passed by the writing of this article. Can you hear me now, Maryland DOC and DPS? Rethink your policy or you and other law enforcement agencies nation-wide could end up with politicians setting your vetting guidelines.

Maryland State Senator Ron Young introduced a bill on March 8 that would prohibit employers from requiring job applicants to disclose usernames or passwords for social media sites nor could they threaten to take or take disciplinary action against current employees who refused to disclose the information. 

S.B. 971, however, doesn’t prohibit employers from using information from social media sites they otherwise obtain non-fraudulently. Nor does it prohibit employers from asking prospective or current employees to provide the information voluntarily. The status of Young’s bill was still pending as of this writing.

Although this may be breaking news and legislation in Maryland, in the words of Yogi Berra, it must have been déjà vu all over again for Bozeman, Montana.

Maryland Could’ve Learned from Montana
Anthony Zaller, writing for the California Employment Law Report, predicted in 2009 that as more people began to live on the Internet, state legislatures would begin to define what employers could and couldn’t ask for from employees’ private Internet postings. His prediction stemmed from a story out of Bozeman that year.

Bozeman made world-wide headlines and caused a firestorm among privacy groups nearly two years ago by asking city, fire and police job applicants to provide their usernames and passwords to social networking sites. As a result of the outcry, the city said it would likely remove the request but might still require job applicants to “friend” the city so it could see what was posted. In defense of the policy, the assistant city manager stated:

“Shame on us if there was information out there available about a person who applied for a job who was a child molester or had some sort of information out there on the Internet that kind of showed those propensities and we didn’t look for it, we didn’t ask and we hired that person. In many ways we would have let the public down.”

Things heated up. The city council voted to hire an investigator to look into how the controversial policy was initiated by the city’s human resource department. Then the policy got dropped.
Finally, the city manager officially apologized for the intrusions saying they appeared to go beyond what was acceptable to the community. I wonder if the assistant city manager still had a job and how many HR heads rolled.

Legal “Experts” Weigh In
Shelly’s article notes that some legal experts in the U.S. say it’s not illegal to request Facebook usernames and password information from employees and applicants, but it’s rarely done.


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Valerie Van BrocklinValerie Van Brocklin is an internationally sought speaker, trainer and author who combines a dynamic presentation style with years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor.


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