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Protecting Your Privacy During a Job Search

Q. Employers are asking for way too much information. I don’t want to provide my Social Security number and other personal information online. People lose laptops; hackers gain access to credit card information. I don’t think anything is confidential or secure. What else can I do and still be considered for the job?

A. Job seekers are often concerned about the privacy of the personal information they disclose in the job application process, including addresses, phone numbers, and Social Security numbers. Given the increasing threat of data breaches and identity theft, applicants justifiably wonder what their privacy rights are in the employment application process, and what prospective employers are doing to secure their personal information.

Many people share your concern about providing their Social Security number and other personal information in an employment application, and are very concerned about whether information is safeguarded after it is submitted.

I consulted Attorney Corey M. Dennis at Governo Law Firm LLC in Boston, an expert in data privacy and security laws, for guidance in addressing these issues. He explained that job seekers are not required to provide their Social Security number or other personal information in employment applications, but refusing to do so may hurt their chances of securing the position. "In the job application process, certain areas are off limits," he noted. Inquiries regarding marital status, membership in protected classes (e.g., race, national origin), and criminal history—are generally prohibited as part of the initial employment screening process.

"Prospective employers are generally permitted to request Social Security numbers from job applicants," explained Dennis. But you may not need to provide that information in an initial employment application. The better practice for companies is to request this information later in the job application process (e.g., to conduct a background check), and for potential employees to wait until then to provide it.

According to Attorney Dennis, Massachusetts has one of the most burdensome state data security law frameworks in the country, requiring all businesses handling personal information of Massachusetts residents to maintain extensive safeguards, document those safeguards in a comprehensive written policy, and train employees on data security practices. Companies face a complex patchwork of state and federal data security laws designed to protect personal information of individuals. Other states have enacted laws specifically intended to protect the privacy of Social Security numbers. For example, in Connecticut, businesses collecting Social Security numbers must create a privacy policy establishing safeguards for that information.

Data privacy practices vary from company to company. “Not all businesses are in compliance with these laws, and data breaches do happen,” said Dennis. For instance, just last week, Salem State University reported a data breach affecting 25,000 current and former employees and students, while The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and Barnes & Noble also reported recent data breaches. Applicants should tread carefully when providing personal information, particularly Social Security numbers, in the job application process; companies will continue to try and protect their data and more laws will restrict how the information is maintained, but there is no guarantee this information won’t be compromised.

Before providing Social Security numbers, job seekers should perform due diligence to ensure that they are applying with a reputable company and through a secure method. Social Security numbers should not be submitted by email, and if submitted through a website, the applicant should ensure that the web page is secure (i.e., begins with “https”). While companies today must maintain extensive security measures to prevent data breaches, job seekers should take these additional precautions to protect themselves from the risk of identity theft.

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