Web privacy: oxymoron?

More schools and employers are using social networking Web sites to screen applicants.

by Conrad Wilson

As Anne Simon left work one Wednesday in September, her manager handed her a note.

“I thought I had done something right, a little thank you note or something,” Simon said.

But when she got to her car and read the message, she quickly realized that was not the case.

Her boss at Eagan’s New Horizon Child Care had seen inappropriate references to work on her MySpace profile.

Simon, an elementary education junior at Minnesota State University-Mankato, and another employee involved quit shortly thereafter because of the incident.

Simon is not alone. Students at the University of Minnesota and across the country are subject to public monitoring at a new level.

A survey conducted by The Minnesota Daily revealed that 31 percent of University students who responded still believe their Internet activities are anonymous.

The survey also asked students whether it is an infringement of privacy for employers, University officials and police to monitor social networking sites. Members of these sites were more likely than non-members to consider these activities violations.

Eighty-five percent of students reported having visited a social networking site and 73 percent of respondents said they are members.

Seventy-two percent of University students consider it a violation for an employer to use social networking sites – like Facebook or MySpace – to check out potential employees. Of those, 20 percent considered it a major violation of privacy, according to the survey.

Still, employers do check social networking sites for prospective hires.

The College of Liberal Arts Career and Community Learning Center offers classes and workshops providing information about professional conduct on Internet sites, said CCLC director Paul Timmins.

Social networking sites are “one more way an employer might learn something about a student,” he said. “Students need to be aware that some employers may choose to look things up online.”

Although some organizations monitor social networking sites, it is not widespread, said Beth Lory, CCLC’s employer relations coordinator.

“There can be an assumption that employers are looking at these sites,” she said.

“We have talked to some employers Ö that have indicated they do not search Internet sites like MySpace and Facebook to do research on candidates.”

Nevertheless, Lory advised that students who are applying for jobs after graduation should present “a professional image” on social networking sites.

About the survey

The Internet Use and Privacy Attitudes Survey was conducted from November 15 to November 22, 2006. 378 students responded to the survey for a response rate of 18.90 percent. The margin of error for this sample is plus or minus 4.54 percent with a 95 percent confidence level. Additional information, including a description of the survey methodology and data results is available online here. Questions about the survey can be directed to Dana Adams at The Minnesota Daily Survey Research Department: E-mail: [email protected]; Call: (612) 627-4080 ext. 3846.

Teach For America, an organization that recruits on campus, does check these types of sites, said Jennifer Carnig, the regional communication director for Teach For America.

The national nonprofit organization enlists recent college graduates to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools.

“At times, Teach For America, like many employers, uses a variety of online and offline tools as part of its recruitment and hiring processes,” she wrote in an e-mail. “That said, our primary focus is on an individual’s application – which provides a sense of their academic prowess, leadership experience, approach to challenge and interest in our mission.”

The Daily survey found that 70 percent of University students consider it a privacy violation for schools to use social networking sites to investigate violations of campus policies.

The University does not employ an “Internet police force,” said University spokesman Dan Wolter. But if information was brought to the University official’s attention, it could be used for disciplinary action, he said.

Students also responded to questions about law enforcement’s use of the sites. Fifty-three percent said it was a privacy violation for law enforcement officials to scope out social networking sites for illegal activity.

University police currently use sites for identification purposes only, said Lt. Troy Buhta. With more training, the department could potentially begin monitoring sites for sexual predators, he said.

Although it hasn’t occurred, Buhta said, pictures of people committing a crime could be used for prosecution.

“It’s in public view, so anybody can use it,” he said. “We wouldn’t need (a) search warrant. Ö It’s definitely evidence that could be used in a case.”

The content on social networking sites is public information.

“If you’re going to post it for everybody else to look at and view, what would be different than the police being able to view it too?” Buhta said. “There’s no privacy violation there.”

Like many students, Simon said she didn’t think her employer would find what she wrote.

“My boss went so far as to print off pages of our wall (a part of a person’s profile others can post messages on) and go though and highlight the things that she didn’t like that we said,” Simon said. “It was one of those things you don’t really think about.”

Because of her experience, Simon said, she hardly uses MySpace anymore.

“It changed a lot of what I put on those sites,” she said. “I know that Facebook

has opened up to a lot of businesses now too. I’ve kind of refined profiles on both (sites) just in case.”