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ACLU to Va State Police: Halt social media reviews

Tuesday - 3/27/2012, 5:56pm  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday urged the Virginia State Police to stop demanding a look at job applicants' Facebook and Twitter accounts, calling the practice an invasion of privacy akin to eavesdropping on a phone call or opening someone's mail.

Rebecca K. Glenberg, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, told the agency in a letter that it may be violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution by requiring applicants to sign onto their social media sites so interviewers can read their private communications.

"Absent a concrete reason to believe that a potential employee is engaged in wrongdoing of which his Facebook account is likely to contain evidence, these communications are simply none of the VSP's business," Glenberg wrote.

State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency has received the letter and will respond, but meanwhile will keep its existing policy.

"As we have stated before, we feel our investigative background process is necessary and appropriate for the job our applicants are expected to do and the authority granted to such individuals upon being hired on to the Virginia State Police," Geller said in a written statement.

She said the burgeoning popularity of social media has made a review of those sites an important component of a thorough background investigation.

"There is no way the public or public interest groups would tolerate the hiring of an individual with, for example, prejudiced or racist commentary posted on a personal social media site," she said.

The Virginia State Police began asking for access to applicants' social networking sites Jan. 1, joining a national trend. Some employers ask for passwords and log-in information.

Two U.S. senators said this week they are asking Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether employers asking for Facebook passwords during job interviews are violating federal law.

Geller said the state police don't ask for the information during job interviews. Instead, a job-seeker goes through several steps _ including a written test, a polygraph and an interview _ before being asked to sign a waiver allowing access to social media accounts. The investigator then asks the applicant to log onto the sites so they can be examined.

So far, Geller said, nobody has refused access to the sites.

The background investigation also includes interviews with former or current employers and neighbors, a criminal history check, credit history and personal references.

Dana Schrad, executive director the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said it's "not unusual" for local police departments to also look at applicants' Facebook and Twitter accounts, although exact figures on the number of departments conducting such inquiries are not available.

"It's kind of a recommended practice these days," she said.

Schrad said the practice is a logical, modern extension of the old routine of canvassing an applicant's neighborhood.

"We've changed so much as a society _ we don't interact with neighbors and live in the same place a long time," she said. "The place we live is Facebook. It becomes a place to learn about a person's personal ethics, value systems. Those are important things for law enforcement."

Schrad said she is sympathetic to privacy rights, but the public demands a high level of scrutiny for police officers.

Glenberg said the state police policy may violate the Stored Communications Act, a federal law that makes it illegal to intentionally access stored electronic communications without valid authorization. She said it also may violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, and the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

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