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Rhodri Marsden: Should my employer be allowed to snoop on me online?


Each week turns up new warnings of the dangers of revealing too much about yourself online. It's not long since the wife of the current head of MI6 unwittingly posted sensitive details of their London residence, while tabloid journalists constantly mine social networking sites to provide astonishing revelations that human beings really enjoy drinking alcohol and having sex. And we're routinely told that our often undeletable online presence – our digital tattoo, as some now call it – may as well be stapled to our CV when we apply for jobs; fervently hoping that a prospective employer won't curiously Google our name is as naive as attending an interview for the position of Housing Benefit Investigation Officer while wearing a gimp mask and a rubber apron and hoping it won't affect our chances.

But at the weekend the Law Society warned employers that using social networking sites to vet employees could leave them vulnerable to discrimination claims. "It's possible to obtain information about a person's sexual orientation or religious beliefs," said John Morris, chair of their Employment Law Committee, "that can impact or be perceived to impact on the decision to recruit or not recruit that person." The Employment Practices Data Protection Code also states that employers should only use this kind of vetting under special circumstances – eg for a job working with the vulnerable – and that any information that they glean is potentially unreliable.

As we seem unable to resist the urge to share everything online, from holiday snaps to thoughts on capital punishment, it's heartening to see the Law Society throwing some of the onus back on employers to ignore all this guff, or at least treat it with scepticism. But let's be frank: people get crossed off shortlists for spurious reasons all the time – untidy handwriting, sweating profusely, laughing inappropriately during job interviews – and whatever a rejection letter might say, we never get to find out the real reasons. Regardless of the fact that a picture of us drinking gin while wearing a tutu has no bearing on our ability to use Microsoft Excel, we're never going to stop employers making negative judgements about us based on our online presence – indeed, a survey in the US back in August suggests that around 35 per cent regularly do so. What to do? Well, you could delete your MySpace – come on, it's old hat; lock down your Facebook and ignore friend requests from strangers; and shove any vaguely impressive information on LinkedIn, a website so dull as to effectively resemble a CV in any case.

Email any technology gripes to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk