The cultural consensus on the boundaries of personal privacy are eroding more quickly than I imagined. There are a lot of reasons for this: the intrusions of technology, increased government intrusiveness as part of anti-terror measures, utilitarian calculations that conclude that privacy should be sacrificed for supposedly more worthy objectives, like preventing bullying, or discouraging sexism and anti-gay attitudes. Whatever the reasons, it is crucial that society puts the brakes on, hard, or George Orwell’s nightmare will arrive remarkably intact, just a few decades late.
A stunning report on the MSNBC blog Red Tape reveals that some state agencies are routinely requiring job applicants, as a condition of employment, to provide full access to their social networking accounts so their otherwise private communications can be monitored. Equally disturbing, college athletes at many colleges are being required to “friend” a coach or other university personnel, who can keep tabs on what the student is posting. From the University of North Carolina handbook:
“Each team must identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to and regularly monitoring the content of team members’ social networking sites and postings,” it reads. “The athletics department also reserves the right to have other staff members monitor athletes’ posts.”
I know how agencies and schools get away with this: duress and coercion. An government job applicant can stand on principle and refuse, but he won’t get the job. An athlete can refuse to cooperate, but lose a scholarship. What is frightening is that anyone in the government or at a university would believe this is fair and ethical. It is no different from requiring a female applicant or athlete to strip naked and allow an administrator to gawk at her: this is using power to force people to surrender their privacy. If you want a job, let us read your private journal. If you want to play soccer, let us read your private medical records. Give us the names of your sex partners. Tell us about your sealed juvenile convictions. Tell us which of your friends use drugs.
The problem is that there are so many new incursions on our privacy that the privacy ethics alarms don’t ring as loudly as before, with the result that bureaucrats, autocrats, power mongers, control freaks and fools no longer detect any boundaries at all. When this happens, the culture has to scream bloody murder, because individuals can’t protect themselves. This is the point at which the law has to step in, because ethics is no longer working. Maryland and Illinois are considering laws to prevent schools and agencies from demanding access to private communications, but as a Bradley Shear, a Washington, D.C. lawyer interviewed for the article, says, a patchwork of state laws isn’t enough—not when privacy and free speech are on the line. “We need a federal law dealing with this,” he says. “After 9/11, we have a culture where some people think it’s OK for the government to be this involved in our lives, that it’s OK to turn everything over to the government. But it’s not. We still have privacy rights in this country, and we still have a Constitution.”
We do, but when ethics alarms don’t ring for those with power, Constitutional rights can’t survive.