"Businesswoman suffering from a headache", via Ingram Publishing, ThinkStock.
"Businesswoman suffering from a headache", via Ingram Publishing, ThinkStock.
“Businesswoman suffering from a headache”, via Ingram Publishing, ThinkStock.

This week, in honor of National Consumer Protection Week, Credit.com is highlighting a number of issues to raise consumer awareness.  Credit.com chairman and co-founder Adam Levin looks at how your private online information can too easily become public, and why you should be careful about what you post lest it come back to haunt you—in your job search, finances, and personal life.

For the past couple of weeks I have been trying to wrap my head around a story I read about a newly instituted (and now temporarily suspended) employment screening policy of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. In addition to the usual requirements—you know, fill out an application and undergo a rigorous background check—they “request” that an applicant offer up his or her social networking login and password information.

The Department contends that the policy was designed to more effectively screen prospective applicants to ensure that the only guys with gang affiliations within their walls are their official guests and not employees.

As reported by NBC’s Washington affiliate, one of many news outlets which carried the story, Robert Collins was an employee of the Department and in 2009 when his mother died, he took a leave of absence. When his leave was up, he applied for a position at another facility within the department and was in the process of being re-certified for the job. During his interview, according to Collins, the interviewer “demanded” his Facebook password and full access to his account. Eager to rejoin his former Department, though he felt it was a total invasion of his privacy, he complied.

According to an interview on WCSH6, Mr. Collins said, “He logged into my account and went through my pages, my posts, my messages, all my pictures, things like that,” he said.

At the conclusion of the interview, he left the building and visited the ACLU. They interviewed him, wrote a letter to the Department, made a video and released it into the ether.

In their letter, the ACLU asked why there was a blanket policy that applicants had to offer up their social networking particulars—especially since—to their knowledge neither Mr. Collins nor the members of his cyber community had attempted to, or frankly wanted to, “friend” the government of the state of Maryland.

The Department responded that no applicant was automatically required to provide that information. I imagine that the typical scenario goes something like this: Interviewer: “Are you an active user of social media?” If the answer is in the affirmative, then the applicant is “asked” if he or she would provide the information.

It’s like an employment breathalyzer test. It’s a “voluntary” job hurdle, like employer review of credit reports and drug tests. You are free to refuse but if you do, leave this office and follow the yellow line down to the front door. Have a lovely day and productive career … working for someone else.

At least that’s how Mr. Collins felt.

In the face of the ACLU campaign, the MDPSCS announced it was suspending the policy for 45 days to evaluate.

What Say the AG?

Douglas Gansler is the Attorney General of Maryland. He was neither consulted when the policy was instituted nor when it was placed under review. That’s not surprising. Frankly, in the world of state government, where I worked for five years, the Attorney General (in whose Department I slaved for those five years, albeit in the great state of New Jersey)—like a spouse—is often the last to know in cases like this.

My sense from reading a story that ran on Washington DC radio station WTOP was that General Gansler may not have been captivated by the policy but wasn’t necessarily convinced that under the circumstances the Department had done anything illegal. He said that there was no written policy for correctional officers.

Gansler drew the distinction between being forced to give up the keys to one’s cyber kingdom “after” passing all the required background checks and being informed “before” the fact that if you wish to work in a particular sandbox you needed to “give it up”—so to speak—to get your own shovel and pail.

Would he have his druthers, I believe that Maryland’s AG prefers to do background checking “the old fashioned way”—like reviewing applications, doing traditional criminal background checking and talking to folks who are knowledgeable about the applicants—over this or even more invasive tactics like looking at private e-mail or text messaging.

So what’s next? Asking for one’s list of “matches” on Match.com? Or will Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services ask for permission to intercept and read candidates’ snail mail?

I am offended by Maryland’s policy. But, even assuming the Department officially ends the practice, on the issue of social network site screening by the majority of recruiters and employment professionals, the trend is not our “friend.” It is hardly a secret that more and more employers are looking at credit reports and it is common practice that HR Directors scour the Internet looking for any evidence of impropriety or stupidity—all too frequent in today’s Generation Invincible online world.

Fact: too much information about too many people is too abundantly available. Knowingly and unknowingly, wittingly and unwittingly, people are hemorrhaging personal identifying information by the minute. More than 81% of divorce lawyers credit sites like Facebook, Match and other online trend-setters with giving them the ammunition they need to bring home the bacon for their clients. Ah, the thanks of a grateful matrimonial bar nation. Perhaps that explains why more than 80% of the respondents in a recent Credit.com/GfK Roper poll said they “will not tolerate” online tracking.

Fact: We complain about tracking yet at almost every turn in the road leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs not so that we may find our way home but rather that subconsciously we can lead others to us. Why?

Well that is a question for folks at a higher psychological pay grade than me.

I, however, am reminded of a principle that my old press secretary at New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs referred to as “The 60 Minutes Theory.”

Larry Nagy counseled, “Never do anything that would prevent you from finishing your TV dinner on a Sunday evening if Mike Wallace appeared on your television set and began telling you about you.”

We are our ultimate guardians. No one has a greater stake in our future and economic security than we do. That means we need to be ever vigilant, self-aware and careful. Even if no one ever asks for your social media and login information, that doesn’t mean someone (on their own behalf or that of another) is not looking through your pages, posts, messages, pictures and Facebook wall as you read this.

Originally posted at Credit.com.