There’s an interesting piece in The Daily Telegraph today about a 12-year-old girl from Minnesota who is taking her school to court because she was forced by the school authorities, against her will and without the expressed permission of her parents, to divulge her Facebook password and allow school officials to read her private messages.
I read this article and my first thoughts were – thank God for the Americal Civil Liberties Union, who are bringing the case on her behalf. Much maligned by the American right wing because they defend those rights that conservatives would actually quite happily squash (flag burning, mosque building, same-sex marriage) while they hypocritically parade around acting like the last stalwart defenders of freedom, you can usually rely on the ACLU to defend the cause of liberty, even if it means holding up a mirror to society and making us ask ourselves some difficult questions sometimes.
The article goes on to mention some additional egregious instances of personal privacy violations by schools and employers, including the following:
“The ACLU recently forced the Department of Corrections in Maryland to stop requiring applicants to provide their Facebook passwords when applying for jobs.”
As if such a practice should ever have been attempted in the so-called land of the free! And:
“In an recent investigation, the TV station MSNBC found that many university sports departments now require students to “friend” their coach, giving officials access to their “friends-only” posts. The University of North Carolina handbook reads: “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.”
Such actions are a total affront to privacy, and organisations that deal in such underhanded and coercive tactics deserve to be named, shamed and sued. Though many of us now live a substantial portion of our lives online in terms of our Facebook and Twitter accounts etc., this only makes the need to enforce a boundary between one’s personal and work lives even more important. There are many ways that a person can bring their family, church, school or employer into disrepute, but just as your boss cannot invite himself round for dinner to make sure you aren’t complaining to your family and neighbours about work at the end of the day, neither can your employer eavesdrop on the digital footprints you leave on social media. No ifs, no buts – it’s wrong.
But moving beyond this issue, we must recognise that growing up and going through school today is surely more different for today’s generation of schoolchildren than most people can ever appreciate. Facebook and Twitter, and the fact that everyone has a mobile phone from about the age of seven these days certainly makes socialising more fun and exciting, but can also take the damage that is caused by “run of the mill” bullying and increase it exponentially. Sadly there are already cases of teenage suicides precipitated by social media-related bullying, and the problem has attracted enough attention that Facebook and other social networks have had to take steps to make it easier to report such behaviour. Faced with this new threat to the wellbeing of young people you can therefore understand the school’s alarm, and perhaps understand (if not accept) the action that they took in this instance. However, I truly would have expected a story about the forced divulgence of personal passwords and the snooping by authorities on a school pupil’s online identity to have originated from Britain, and not the United States.
And it should not have to fall to the ACLU to argue the blindingly obvious in court – that schools, employers and other such authorities have no remit to spy on a private citizen’s online life.