Background Check for the Digital Age: Employers, Colleges Insist on Full Facebook Access

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For years we’ve been told to keep drunken Facebook photos and racy wall posts private to avoid the judging eye of a potential employer, but now, according to MSNBC’s Red Tape blog, even that might not be enough.

As Bob Sullivan reports, some employers and colleges are taking the unusual step of either asking applicants to show them the private side of their Facebook profile in an interview or add them as a friend to gain access to friends-only posts. In Maryland, the Department of Corrections has taken to asking interviewees to log in to their account and show the interviewer wall posts, whom they are friends with and photos. That practice, while eyebrow raising, actually makes a bit of sense, because the applicants are being screened for jobs in prisons — but another example MSNBC cites is more curious.

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According to Sullivan, student athletes at several colleges nationwide are required to friend a coach or compliance officer on Facebook. MSNBC cites this requirement from the University of North Carolina’s student-athlete handbook as an example typical of many colleges: “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 also says, “The athletics department also reserves the right to have other staff members monitor athletes post,” leaving the door open for the university to use outside social-media-monitoring companies.

This story comes the same day as a San Francisco Chronicle story on scholarship providers cruising Facebook and other social-media sites to help vet applicants. Now presumably the scholarship providers do not have access to “friends only” posts, so it’s not any different from employers who probe the public activities of applicants online, but the story brings to light yet another way one’s online activities could affect future endeavors. According to the Chronicle, about 75% of scholarship providers surveyed by FastWeb and the National Scholarship Providers Association said they are looking for behavior that could reflect badly on the provider, including underage drinking, racy photos, drug use and racial slurs.

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The practice of force-friending and asking job applicants to showcase their profiles has the American Civil Liberties Union and others up in arms over invasion of privacy and free-speech concerns. The Illinois state legislature has even introduced a bill to ban employers from asking applicants for social-media passwords. But if the students want to play sports and the applicants want to get hired, they might have little choice but to submit. While at first this seems like an egregious infringement into private (online) lives, it should serve as a reminder to never post things on Facebook that you wouldn’t want people to see — it’s still the Internet, where nothing is ever truly private.

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.