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Monitoring Public Information is Not a Violation of Privacy

A storm is building. People are drawing lines. As of this writing, there are 35 states considering some form of digital privacy bills making it illegal to ask for social media passwords and usernames for purposes of gaining private information. The bills are aimed primarily at businesses and schools, but special attention is being paid to the monitoring of college student-athletes.

Advocates of the bills, including lawyers, students, and labor groups, claim that the monitoring of protected information not only invades a person’s privacy, but attaches some form of liability to the group doing the monitoring. Even though this may be true concerning protected information, something is getting lost in translation here, especially as it relates to student-athletes.

Many universities, including the University of Washington, monitor student-athletes for purposes of promotion. College athletic departments often retweet an athlete’s message as a way to engage fans in a richer experience. They haven’t asked for any login information or passwords—they are simply monitoring what the athletes are saying on public communications channels and choosing to repost the more engaging messages. This is the nature of social media—it is a public connecting channel. Coaches sometimes use Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch with team members on issues related to the team. They are using social media like everyone else—to communicate. Spying

When information is public, am I liable if I read it? What if I follow my neighbor on Twitter because he's a friend? If he tweets he is going to commit a crime (although I’m sure he never would), am I liable for that information? If I follow the logic of some that are criticizing the monitoring of public information from athletes, I would technically be liable for any damage my neighbor would inflict during his crime.

As silly as all this is, it’s time for some sanity in this discussion. Athletes aren’t like every other college student. They are celebrities, whether we like it or not, and their behavior for the good or bad has the power to build up or tear down an institution’s reputation. That is the reality that college administrators struggle with every day. But, the challenge comes in how to use this renegade flow of information for good. How do we do that?

Start with educationTeach student-athletes how to use social media responsibly. Partner with them. Help them learn how to use those channels to build a personal brand that will help them after they leave college. Social media is today’s job application. Make it worth their while. Want to create a more engaged fan experience? Find a few athletes that tweet well, and retweet them. Let athletes know you are watching their public accounts for good messages.

Honor the student-athlete’s privacy. Asking for social media logins and passwords to follow a protected account is a violation of their privacy, no matter how you slice it. In a year, it will be illegal. Software programs that require a student-athlete to “friend” an application or provide login information will either morph to be legal or fall by the wayside in the college ranks.

Set up a social media monitoring system for your athletes on Twitter. Monitoring public information is not a violation of anyone’s privacy and it helps the student-athlete learn the responsibility of communicating in the public eye. Build trust.  Athletic departments have a duty to protect their reputation and help student-athletes learn how their actions connect to a bigger picture. Learning to use social media responsibly is a good start.

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