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Eye on Ethics

To Google or Not to Google: That Is the Question
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
September 2015

Martha was a clinical social worker at a community mental health center that serves people who struggle with persistent mental illness and addictions. Martha began working with a 37-year-old man, Zachary, who sought treatment to help him address his cocaine addiction. His probation officer referred Zachary to Martha; the court placed Zachary on probation following his conviction on a felony shoplifting charge. Zachary told Martha that he had shoplifted to support his cocaine habit; he stole items that he would then sell at a local flea market.

During their first counseling session, Zachary also told Martha that years earlier, he'd been diagnosed with and treated for bipolar disorder. Zachary said he hadn't been in treatment or taken medication "for many years."

Martha asked Zachary whether he had any other arrests on his record. According to Martha, Zachary seemed evasive and reluctant to answer the question. Martha sensed that Zachary may have had some trouble with the law that he didn't want to discuss. Following the session, Martha decided to "google" Zachary, who had a unique surname, to see whether she could locate any information about his criminal background.

Evolving Privacy Norms
Throughout their profession's history, social workers have been sensitive to clients' privacy rights. NASW's first code of ethics, published in 1960, included a principle, "I respect the privacy of the people I serve." The current NASW Code of Ethics states, "Social workers should respect clients' right to privacy. Social workers should not solicit private information from clients unless it is essential to providing services or conducting social work evaluation or research. Once private information is shared, standards of confidentiality apply." This standard was written about one year before Google was incorporated as a company.
The relatively recent advent of digital technology and social media has fundamentally changed the meaning and application of these ethical guidelines. Imagine professional life before the invention of the technology that now enables social workers to search for information about clients on Google or Facebook. Back then, if a social worker was suspicious about elements of a client's personal life—where the client lived and with whom, whether the client frequented high-risk locations—professional standards and norms would have prohibited conducting surveillance (e.g., putting on a disguise, tailing the client as he or she moves about town, or using binoculars from a distance to monitor the client's activities and whereabouts) without the client's knowledge or consent. Certainly such conduct would have been considered unethical.

But now consider the electronic search and surveillance options available to social workers as a result of digital technology. Conceptually, is there a meaningful difference between old-fashioned disguised surveillance and social workers' use of modern electronic searches and surveillance? What standards should the profession adopt to ensure ethical conduct? With all due respect to Shakespeare and Hamlet, we must ask: To google or not to google? That is the question.

A relatively small group of social workers and ethicists has begun to explore these issues. Although opinions vary somewhat, there seems to be emerging consensus that under ordinary circumstances, social workers should refrain from casual digital and electronic searches for information about clients without their knowledge or consent. How would your clients feel if they learned after the fact that you spent time searching for information about them? Would they consider this to be an invasion of their privacy? Would they feel overexposed or betrayed? Would this affect clients' willingness to trust you?

Respecting Client Privacy
My own sense, which I believe is shared by growing numbers of social workers who think carefully about this issue, is that it's time for the profession to develop new ethical standards that respect clients' privacy by avoiding electronic searches without clients' consent while recognizing that under extraordinary circumstances—especially when compelling safety issues are involved—social workers may feel the need to conduct electronic searches for information about clients. This is consistent with the well-known fact that in the face of unusual and compelling circumstances, social workers may have to override clients' rights; e.g., when social workers disclose confidential information about clients, without their consent, in order to comply with mandatory reporting laws pertaining to child or elder abuse or to prevent serious harm. The same is true when social workers decide they must override clients' right to self-determination, which practitioners ordinarily respect, in situations such as when an unstable client demonstrates suicidal ideation and resists any form of interference.

So how do we extend similar thinking to the more recent privacy challenges created by the invention of Internet-based search engines? Consistent with social work's earlier efforts to create ethical standards that balance competing duties (for example, the duty to respect client confidentiality and the simultaneous but possibly conflicting duty to protect third parties from harm), I would argue that social workers should avoid conducting electronic searches for information about clients without their knowledge or consent, unless social workers conclude that conducting such a search is necessary under emergency circumstances to prevent serious harm. An example would be searching for information about a vulnerable client's whereabouts when he or she has essentially "disappeared" and not responded to multiple messages.
Some social workers have sought to balance these competing duties by including language in what are known as social media policies that they share with clients at the beginning of their professional relationship. A carefully constructed social media policy can prevent confusion and minimize the likelihood of ethics-related problems pertaining to both practitioners' and clients' use of digital and other electronic technology. Ideally, a comprehensive policy addresses the most common forms of electronic communication used by clients and social workers: social networking sites, search engines, e-mail and text messages, location-based services, and consumer review sites.

My preference is for social workers to inform clients that, to respect their privacy, social workers will not conduct electronic searches about them unless a genuine emergency arises where information obtained electronically might prevent serious harm. (For additional discussion of social media policies, see www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_070111.shtml)

Ethical standards must keep pace with the times. Most contemporary social workers completed their formal education before the creation of Google and Facebook. The ethics of electronic searches is a compelling example of the need for the profession to monitor the emergence of novel ethical challenges.

Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He's the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.