Taking A Stand On Privacy, As Ethics Alarms Go Silent

"Oh, all right---as long as I get that job."

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.

14 thoughts on “Taking A Stand On Privacy, As Ethics Alarms Go Silent

      • Yeah. So funny you laugh until you start crying, and then you never laugh again for fear you’ll get thrown in jail for laughing at an off-color joke.

        • And there were plenty of off-color jokes at work. I usually just considered the source like I do with Limbaugh. Some of my private employers have been more concerned with my social activity than when I was in service. There was alot more at stake than in the civilian world. Corporate espionage is a big deal, but not always a problem of national security. Thinking more about it, I guess private companies are worried more about saving and making money than the government is.

      • I’ll go along with Michael on that. And, ethical (and constitutional) questions aside, consider what this portends- particularly with underage people. For a parent to require this is one thing… and actually commendable. But these other people? Have we forgotten the Sandusky case so soon? Or the seemingly endless parade of teacher/predators? Requiring high standards of students in their behavior and achievement is a fine thing and should be emphasized far more than it is today. But requiring that an instructor be inserted directly into one’s social contacts or private comments- even online- is indeed Orwellism.

        • From another perspective: The school where my wife teaches has a policy that forbids teachers from Facebook “friend” status with any of the students. All students – not just the ones in her classes, I understand.

          I have not asked my wife, but I suppose there would be an exception if one of our own kids was a student.

          • That’s a wise policy. It’s also an ethical one; not only because it keeps non-parents away from these things, but also encourages kids to be alert for their own online security. Both are prime factors. I’m sure your wife, as a parent, would be exempt in her own child’s case!

            • I agree as well. I have one daughter who is on Facebook, but everything goes through my wife and me. We had one incident of bullying. It was harmless for someone of her age. We made it a learning situation. However, you can tell that some parents don’t seem to care how their kids use or abuse the internet. To censor people when not at work or school is ridiculous. Teachers or employers who do that have way too much time on their hands. As far as the goverment goes, they should worry more about protecting resources than spying on citizens without just cause.

  1. A friend of mine who will remain unnamed (If he doesn’t have the courage to blow the whistle himself, I’m going to respect that decision even if I don’t agree) goes to a college in Auburn, Michigan(I forgot the name of the school). He told me about an incident in which a teacher had her students keep a private journal to be turned in, but failed to give her students any restrictions on what to write. When she collected the journals, one of them contained expressed infatuation and sexual attraction to numerous females on the campus, including the teacher. Outraged, the teacher PUBLISHED his supposedly “private” journal for the entire school to read, and now a group of female students are trying to get signatures for a petition to have him suspended for what he wrote. They sit in the cafeteria and go on about “sexual harassment”, and essentially browbeat and shame other students into signing their petition without knowing what it’s really about.

    The point of this anecdote is that I’m not just worried about loss of privacy so much as what people will do with that information. In a perfect world, or even a decent one, I would be able to trust a figure of authority with personal information. Unfortunately, the world is very far from perfect, and most of those authority figures have no business near power.

    • I should clarify- the journal didn’t belong to my friend, it belonged to someone he knew. My friend is thankfully not attracted to these women.

  2. A lot of this began with the world-wide-web. Anonymous speech became easier to distribute widely. Predictably, people abused it. Also predictably, people wanted it stopped. Unfortunately, there were very few adult around to stand up and say “sorry, these things happen and you need to learn how to deal with them”.

    • We need to make the world-wide-web safe for children
    • We can’t allow racist, sexist, or homophobic speech
    • We can’t tolerate anyone who makes others feel uncomfortable

    Unless you are willing to fight AGAINST these positions, there can be no privacy, there can be no free speech. Once you accept these premises as valid, you accept snooping into every aspect of people’s lives. If it isn’t OK in public, it isn’t OK in private. If you can be convicted, fired, or expelled for speech in public, it is a small step to the same consequences for behavior you thought was ‘private’. If it is against the rules to do it in private, people need to monitor your ‘private’ behavior.

    I was in a position at a University once that had a ridiculous (but quite typical) policy on dating in the workplace. It stated that if you wanted to date another employee, you had to notify and get approval from a designated University official. You had to go through the approval and notification step every time you ‘escalated’ the relationship (the term was not defined). At the time, I was single and was working most of the day alone in a lab with a single woman. We both had to fill out the form and thought it was ridiculous. (Being the troublemaker I am), I suggested that we test the policy. We could pretend to go on a date, have a pretend relationship, and escalate the relationship. We would fill out the required paperwork for endless ‘escalations’ both trivial and graphic an see what happened. She didn’t think it was such a good idea and we didn’t do it. I always kind of wish we had, just to see what happened. Did they really want this kind of information, or did they just do it to protect themselves against sexual harassment claims? What are the implications for keeping a file on your employees with date and approval (by university official) for your employees to have:
    •first date
    •first kiss
    •second base
    •fill in your favorite sex act here

    Unless we give up the idea that controlling other peoples thoughts, and speech is OK, until we accept that some people will have offensive ideas or thoughts and learn to ignore them, we won’t have any privacy.

    • …began with the world-wide-web. Anonymous speech became easier to distribute widely.

      Same could be said for the Gutenberg press and movable type.

      We need to make the world-wide-web safe for children

      I’m not sure how this is relevant to the post. Why limit it to web browsing? Can’t we just agree that the world should be safe for children.

      • I meant the most recent advancement in the distribution of anonymous speech.
        As for the second part, the world shouldn’t be safe for children. There are a lot of things that are useful and necessary that aren’t and shouldn’t be made safe for children (band saws and tigers for instance). This is why children need parents to supervise them. I included this because a massive amount of the restriction on speech are to make sure it is ‘safe’ for children. The idea that the material presented on the WWW, discussions, and images need to all be safe for children was (and is) a big deal. Because of things like this, my students couldn’t search for information on topics such as carbon-carbon bond cleavage and the Big Bang Theory for several years. There are adult topics and adult themes that need to be discussed and I bristle at the notion that you need to justify why X should be allowed or why you need to talk about Y.

  3. Jack, we’re in agreement here. I think this is an intrusive violation on someone’s private life. But the inherent problem with Facebook is that most of its users are too young and dumb to know better. They freely post intimate details of their lives without any grasp of the consequences — ethical or otherwise.

    These controversial policies which you address seem more reactionary by institutions that have been caught with “egg on their face” for not knowing about dubious behaviors that are published on the Internet. So in that case, if someone has a public Twitter feed — it’s fair game. But it is overreaching to expect an invitation to “friend” someone on Facebook as a prerequisite for a scholarship or employment.

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