It is called “shoulder-surfing”, and it is getting increasingly common. Applicants at job interviews are being asked, at some point in the proceedings, to either hand over their passwords to social networking sites like Facebook so that the interviewers can have a quick look, or log in there and then so the interview panel can, quite literally, look over their shoulders. It has begun to happen frequently enough that Facebook released an advisory last week warning users that handing over their passwords was a breach of the website’s terms of service. Indeed, wrote the organisation’s “chief privacy officer”, Erin Egan, Facebook would sue any organisation that made the demand. The spark was a well-publicised case in which the Maryland Department of Corrections, which runs that American state’s jail network, went through the Facebook profiles of thousands of job applicants after asking for their passwords, and rejected some of them on the basis of facts gleaned from the exercise.
It is easy to see why employers might be tempted to peer into applicants’ online lives. Worldwide, people’s social lives have moved online to a far greater degree than they have earlier. On Twitter, Facebook and Orkut, people make connections and reveal information, official and personal, that many in their employers’ human resources (HR) cell may well think are germane to the hiring process. Are they in the habit of talking about work issues on their social network, for example? Sometimes people think that their Facebook page is like an intimate dinner gathering, when it’s actually like standing in a room full of hundreds of acquaintances, shouting into a megaphone. Yet the evolving consensus is unsympathetic to this view, at least in the United States. The Maryland government, stung by its jail department’s actions, has criminalised the act of asking for Facebook passwords, and several other jurisdictions have followed suit.
The United States is, however, considerably more privacy-friendly than other countries, especially India. There, even asking about marital status and whether or not the applicant has children is considered intrusive — and, in some cases, a violation of statutory privacy rights, for which interviewers may be sued. In India, rare is the job interview that does not touch at least briefly upon personal affairs. Will India’s jobseekers respond to questions about their Facebook life docilely? Will India’s HR departments come to think of this as basic due diligence, such as they are required to do? There are two reasons to suppose that India’s reaction will not be too different from that of the United States. The first is that India’s middle class, as visible in the fracas over the freedom of speech online, has come to think of the internet as an escape valve from the considerably more restrictive offline public sphere. Like the government’s intrusion into online privacy, corporate intrusiveness may meet with a backlash. The second reason is that companies that are more likely to hire tech-savvy employees are also more likely to be closely integrated into the workplace practices of the United States. Both jobseekers and those looking to hire them will follow the spreading debate on shoulder-surfing with considerable interest.