Yesterday’s posting on unconsented cell phone surveillance reminded me of an excellent column that Peter Shane wrote a while back in Jurist where he pointed out that any technical legality of the NSA surveillance program is besides the point. Shane asked, what if the Post Office created a database with the addresses contained on every piece of mail it handles. Even if, hypothetically, such a program were legal:
An America in which ordinary citizens have their mail “surveilled” would be a different America from the country in which virtually all of us think we live. Our freedom would be lost not because a law was broken, but because of the breakdown in respect for the norms of liberty and government self-restraint.
I think much the same could be said of the ends-justifies-the-means thinking of the Northeastern University researchers who got a European cell phone provider to give them individualized location information on 100,000 unknowing customers. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.
Note to job applicants: your potential employers aren’t just looking at Google and Yahoo.
Sunday’s New York Times includes a really interesting article by Alan Finder on how some companies now investigate job applicants on social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, and Friendster. See “For Some, Online Persona Undermines a Résumé.”
The article underscores a simple but important fact: users of social network sites shouldn’t assume that their postings are private. Although names like “MySpace” paint an image of personal spaces, personal doesn’t mean private. It’s not difficult to get into these sites – as the article notes, for some sites such as MySpace, you generally only need to register. For Facebook, to view entries for a particular college, you only need an e-mail address from that college.
That means an awful lot of people can view Facebook entries: alumni with email addresses (which could include potential employers), professors, even campus police. Despite this, at an emotional level, many people assume that their personal websites, blogs, and social network postings are relatively personal spaces that won’t be noticed or invaded by others. These assumptions are wrong in at least two ways.