Online Privacy: Is It Working For You? - WCMH: News, Weather, and Sports for Columbus, Ohio

You Can't Delete Your Way Out Of Social Media

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -

The topic of online privacy is something we hear about all the time -- especially when it comes to Facebook.

If you have a Facebook profile, you know there are all kind of different settings and choices you can make to customize your personal level of privacy; but are those tools working how you want them to?

HOW TO: Download & Explore Your Facebook Archive
BLOG: Employers Rights Vs. Your Right To Privacy

What does your on-line profile say about you?  What would your employer – or prospective employer – learn if they went online and looked at your Facebook page? 

A  Xenia, Ohio Burger King employee lost his job when he celebrated his 25th birthday by getting naked and taking a bath inside a sink used to clean the restaurant's kitchen utensils. He compounded his poor judgment by posting a video of his bubble-bath on his MySpace page.

Surely you have more sense than that. You would delete unsavory pictures and illicit posts before you went on a job interview, or if you learned your employer would be looking at your social media pages.  But here in Ohio you can't delete your way out of your messy social media life.  It is legal in Ohio for employers, employment agencies and labor unions to ask you to surrender your personal password, and as we learned in a recent experiment, your password can open your entire history to inspection and judgment. 

I went on Facebook and found a volunteer who was willing to give us her password.  Using that password, local attorney Sara Jodka went to work.  In the interest of full disclosure, Sara and I are colleagues at Porter Wright. You should also know that Sara advises her clients who are employers against asking for personal passwords during the hiring process.  What she uncovered demonstrates the exposure you face if you surrender your password.

Using the volunteer's password, Sara was able to access every item the volunteer posted on her Facebook wall since the day she signed on – in December 2007.  She was able to see every picture and every video the volunteer posted, every ad she ever viewed, a list of all her current and deleted friends.  What I found most surprising, however, is that even the private messages to single individuals that the volunteer had typed into a pop-up message box were available for viewing.  We printed out more than 200 pages of conversations the volunteer believed to be private – even those she thought were deleted.  If an employer has your password all of this information will be at their fingertips.

Ohio Senator Charleta Tavares calls it an invasion of privacy.  She has re-introduced a bill that stalled in the legislature last year that would make it illegal for an employer, an employment agency or a labor union to ask you to surrender your personal passwords.  It is vital to note that the Tavares bill would not ban employers from looking at your social media pages, it would merely deny them access to the password that opens to examination your hidden files, deleted items and history.  Tavares says employers have a legitimate right to examine the pages that you have open to the rest of your on-line connections.  It's especially relevant, for example, to exclude people with sexually explicit and inappropriate language from working with children.

Sara Jodka points out that the passwords are also relevant in certain legal disputes.  For example, a worker claiming debilitating injuries that made it impossible for him to lift heavy objects was found to have posted pictures of himself weight-lifting.

Our volunteer was shocked at how much private information we were able to uncover – especially her private conversations dating back to 2007.  It's all readily available thanks to a new Facebook access program that lets you download your entire history.  Anyone can do it if they simply have a Facebook account and know the password.  If you are curious about your own on-line history and what it might reveal to an employer, the director of NBC4i.com, Denise Yost, has prepared instructions that will let you download information about your Facebook account. You can access the instructions here.   Additionally, I authored a post for a legal blog examining where your right to privacy ends and the employers' right to screen applicants begins.  You can find it here.

Our volunteer vows to never have another private conversation on Facebook.  Are you re-examining your on-line habits?  Experts have always said you should not post anything on social media that you don't want your grandmother to see.   You might want to also think about how your online posts would be viewed by your employer.   And, don't get me started on what all this might mean in divorce court.

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