david foleys blog

David Foley's Labor and Employment Law Blog

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Worlds Colliding

George is changing clothes after a swim in cold water when he is walked in on...
One theme that ran through the Symposium on Technology in Labor and Employment Law was the way that technology is blurring the line between our personal and our professional lives and the ease with which anybody can access everything about us.  I am a big fan of Seinfeld and in thinking about this theme I couldn’t help but recall an episode where George Castanza was caused much trouble by his "worlds colliding".  George liked his life with his friends to be separate from his life with his girlfriend.  When his girlfriend became friends with his friends, his "worlds collided" and everything broke down; we risked losing Independent George.  This situation strikes me as a very pre-Information Age predicament.  With the advent of Facebook, LinkedIn and Google, can anyone truly keep their worlds separate?  Could George, for instance, have pretended to be an architect or a marine biologist?  Could Jerry have pretended to be married to get his girlfriend a discount on dry cleaning?  Social media and simple Google searches would probably have foiled these plans.

The problem of course is that like George, many of us want to keep our worlds from colliding.  We have multiple "worlds" including at least a work world and a personal world, and we like the different facets of our lives to have some boundaries of separation.  For instance, people feel that their work world is where they make money, and that it shouldn't be affected by how they spend, borrow, or repay their money; thus there is rising resistance to the use of credit history in pre-employment screening. Many people would not want their "friend world" meeting their "financial world", let alone their "work world" meeting their "financial world."  The idea that an employer should get a peek at your credit before or during your employment is one that offends our sense of privacy and separation of worlds.  Thus several state legislatures have passed and others are debating the passage of laws that curb the practice and the EEOC lodged a disparate impact suit against Kaplan for its use of credit history.

But credit history is just one piece of information in a multitude of data that is available to members of our various worlds.  The Information Age is upon us and our personal information is out there for the looking.  Many hiring managers check out the Facebook life of candidates.  George Castanza would probably not have gotten away with his pretence of requiring a cane to walk, if say management had seen pictures of him pushing his way out of a burning building.  Your friends may be checking how much money you make at your company's website, salary.com, or sites like app.com (federal employees).  Furthermore, your boss, coworkers, or friends can take a look at your house and see how much it's worth at sites like http://www.spokeo.com/.  Your work performance may even be rated by your coworkers at cubeduel (I hope none of my coworkers have joined cubeduel, but I refuse to log in to find out).  Keeping your information compartmentalized is likely going to be harder and harder.

How can people keep their personal and professional worlds from colliding?  As I see it, they can take measures try to limit what’s out there and available on the web, they can push for laws that restrict employers from accessing information on the web, or they can push for prohibitions on employers using certain information against them.  As to keeping things off the web, an individual can take actions toward limiting what’s out there, but my reading of the writing on the wall is that more and more will be available.  A person can limit what they say on a site like Facebook, but at some point their lack of Facebook presence may become glaring: what’s this guy trying to hide?  Moreover, you can’t keep other people from talking about you on Facebook or Cubeduel, etc.  You can, as David Thompson instructs, stop filling out mall surveys and signing up for bonus cards.  But with increased publishing of everything on the web, clever data miners and unsympathetic hackers leaking any detail in their path, like it or not you can’t keep off the grid. Even anonymous commenting on websites and blogs is being pushed out.  As to limiting employers from accessing information, there seems to be a constitutional issue with that as the right to free speech includes both speaking and listening.  Finally, limiting what employers can use against against potential and current employees comes with it the difficult (but not impossible) problem of proving that the employer has used the prohibited information against them.  As you can see, I’m not an optimist on privacy protection.

I’m not calling for an end to privacy; I am as scared about the loss of privacy as the next guy. (Besides I don’t advocate for political causes on this blog). But, I’ll offer this question anyway:  If we are going to be stuck with a loss of privacy, is this truly something new and are there any upsides?

I like to visit those historical recreations of ancient dwellings.  The last one I visited was in Moundville, Alabama.  The dwelling where the entire family lived was one room and not very big.  I remember thinking to myself, “these people had no privacy.” I shared a room with one of my brothers growing up, but compared to the people who lived there I had an incredible amount of privacy as a child.  I think most people throughout history have lived in similar close quarters.  What’s more, they lived in small intertwined communities where there were no strangers and the actions of each were the knowledge of all.  Changes in modern life have given us an unprecedented amount of privacy.  In villages of the days gone by, there was little room for secrecy.  If I did not repay a loan to a neighbor, I might expect it to be harder to get a loan from a different neighbor because likely word would have spread.  This effect kept people honest.  Anonymity has the opposite effect.  There has been an outcry that accountability is being lost in our society.  How much of that is do to our privacy/anonymity? If our reputations mattered more, would we behave differently?

On the other hand the new lack of privacy is something completely different than the old.  Where in the past, hundreds or so in your village might have known all about you, now hundreds of millions can know about you.  And of course in the past things weren’t written down for all to see forever.  If you made a passionate argument one night with a group of friends as a teenager, it is unlikely that your words would come back to haunt you when you were a town elder trying to obtain a leadership position.  But if a teenager today makes some argument on Facebook, they may have to answer for what they said twenty years later.  In a way we have outsourced some of our thinking to Google: certainly knowing that information is out there lets us keep from memorizing facts, and knowing that other people may have thought about things lets us search the web for their insights.  So when our searches are tracked by Google, in a way, our thoughts are tracked.  Surely, in past societies, people could keep their thoughts private.  And what is more central to Independent George than his ability to think about what he wants without fear of repercussion?

George was worked up because his Boyfriend George and Independent George lives were colliding, but I imagine that for most people, the place where the rubber meets the road with the loss of privacy (like in many areas) is where the lack of privacy starts to affect a person’s income.  Therefore, I think we can expect employment law to be at the forefront of the privacy debate.  I am going to read Thompson’s book Wild West 2.0, if anyone has other suggestions on good books or articles on this topic, I would appreciate it if you send me an email or leave a suggestion in the comments (anonymous comments are allowed here).

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