Anyone seeking to become a Virginia state trooper must make available the contents of his or her social media accounts — including private profiles — as part of the department’s extensive background-screening process.
Applicants are not required to provide usernames or passwords, but they must log in to their social networking sites and allow a state police background investigator to review the contents.
“They are required to provide a listing of any social media sites they are engaged in — Twitter, Facebook, Flickr — and then the background investigator will sit down with that person at that moment, and they will review it together,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
Geller described the social media check, which began Jan. 1, as being “on the same plane as us talking to teachers, former employers, neighbors” and conducting criminal history and credit checks on prospective officers. Applicants must sign a waiver granting access, Geller said.
“It’s a very contentious arena as far as what people feel is their” personal information, Geller acknowledged. “But again, we’ve always had a very comprehensive background investigation.”
Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, described the practice as “deplorable” and equated it with “asking to see someone’s diary.”
“We’ve begun to develop legal theories to challenge this practice,” Willis said. “There ought to be some distinction between your private life and your life at work. And the General Assembly ought to draw the line somewhere. One line ought to be that employers should not be able to delve into the very private matters of applicants of employment.”
The practice of potential employers asking for usernames and passwords has led to proposed legislation in Illinois and Maryland that would bar public agencies from asking for access to employees’ social networks.
With the rising popularity and usage of social media, social networking checks became a necessary part of the state police agency’s overall background-investigation process, Geller said.
“There has been much discussion among public safety organizations and the International Association of Chiefs of Police of how to address the role and importance of social media in the vetting process for future law enforcement professionals,” she added. “State police has followed the same course many other law enforcement agencies have implemented nationwide.”
So far, no applicant has refused access to their social media accounts, none has complained about privacy concerns and none has been rejected based on what investigators viewed, Geller said.
The Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has required access to social media accounts as a pre-employment condition for several years, but police in Richmond and Chesterfield County do not, officials in those jurisdictions said. Richmond and Chesterfield review only publicly accessible information on social media sites during the screening process.
A Henrico County police spokesman could not immediately provide his department’s policy. The Virginia Department of Corrections does not require a social networking search.
Hanover sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Whitley said examining an applicant’s Facebook postings helps investigators better determine their suitability to become a police officer. He said investigators typically examine an applicant’s social media accounts with them present, but it also can be done remotely by asking the applicant to “friend” the investigator, which unlocks the applicant’s private profile.
“Social media, whatever it may be, meticulously documents their lives, and in a lot of cases people put everything on there,” Whitley said. “And that is our charge, to take this person who has applied for a job (that involves) the public’s trust … and to fully document their lives.”
Requiring access to an employee’s social media accounts seems more prevalent among public agencies, at least in the Richmond area.
A handful of Richmond-area companies, including Dominion Resources Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., Estes Express Lines, The Martin Agency, Long & Foster Realtors, HHHunt Communities and Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, said they do not require employment applicants to release their social media account access information. Some of the companies said they might look at an applicant’s public profile.
“Our interviewing and screening process may include looking at publicly available information about job applicants from Internet searches or similar sources, information that is available to everyone,” said a spokesman for Richmond-based Dominion Resources. But applicants are not required to provide passwords or other personal access to their accounts, he said.
“If you’re an employee of the government, you’re entitled to certain constitutional protections in your private life,” Willis said. “Under current Virginia law, private employers can reach into almost any aspect of your life if they wish.”
Willis said the ACLU’s preliminary research indicates that public employers may be violating the constitutional rights of employees when they ask to see certain levels of their Facebook communications.
“Everything involving constitutional rights involves some gradations,” Willis said. “Your most public Facebook postings may not be protected, or protected as well as your more private postings that are shared with only certain people.”
Willis said an argument could be made that law enforcement employers should be able to probe more deeply into a prospective police officer’s social media postings than other public employees. “The question that remains, though, is, How much?”
If the practice is challenged, the courts may allow the government to be more invasive with jobs involving national security or police work, Willis said, but he doubts public employers will be given a blank check.
“The question would remain again with the diary example,” Willis said. “We don’t believe a court would give even law enforcement the right to read the diaries of individuals they’re hiring.”
Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the state police superintendent, had a different take.
“Providing Virginia’s citizens with the highest quality and caliber of state troopers requires a comprehensive vetting process,” he said. “The VSP is a unique public agency in the services it provides; therefore, in today’s society, the virtual character check is just as important as the ‘physical’ character check.”
“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,” he said.