Thinking Tech

Should companies be allowed to ask for your Facebook password?

Should companies be allowed to ask for your Facebook password?

Posting in Government

A U.S. Senator plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit employers from demanding access to an applicant's Facebook account.

Anyone's who's ever spent time in an office knows that there's this unspoken understanding that whatever people do outside of work hours is their own business -- at least that's how it's supposed to be.

However, with the ubiquity of social networks, employers have increasingly more opportunities to be really nosey. Some are going so far as to ask applicants to friend a company representive or to log into their Facebook accounts during the job interview. But as disturbing as all this sounds, there have been instances in which companies have outright demanded that job seekers hand over their account passwords.

For U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, the practice is downright appalling, which is why the Democrat from Connecticut plans to introduce a bill that would make it illegal for employers to make such a request. "These practices seem to be spreading, which is why federal law ought to address them. They go beyond the borders of individual states and call for a national solution," Blumenthal told Politico.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the practice has been going for a while. Back in December, I wrote about a couple of incidents in which candidates were asked to surrender more personal information than they may be comfortable with. One case involved an unnamed woman who was applying to work as a phone operator at a local police department in North Carolina when she came across a section of the application asking whether she belonged to any social networking sites. And as if that wasn't invasive enough, the form further requested that the applicant provide a username and password.

Her husband, who likely became alarmed (I mean I would too), posted a snapshot of the application on the content sharing site Reddit, which generated thousands of comments within a matter of hours.

Here's a snapshot of the application:

In Maryland, a resident named Robert Collins was asked to provide his Facebook account information during the actual interview at a local correctional facility, according to the Human Resources Journal. Subsequently, it didn't take very long for the American Civil Liberties Union to get involved. On behald of Collins, they fired off a letter to the Maryland Department of Public Safety stating that:

“Courts that have been required to address the issue have ruled that wall postings and email on Facebook and other social media sites are protected communications under the SCA [Stored Communications Act], making efforts to access them without proper authorization illegal… Here, there can be little question but that force ‘authorization,’ such as that demanded of Mr. Collins, is not proper authorization under the SCA, given the disparate bargaining power of the employer and the employee or applicant.” The SCA is part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which protects such forms of communication.

Now while it's a no-brainer that a group like the ACLU would contend that such inquiries to be a violation of existing privacy laws, are there any statutes that definitively prohibit such a practice?

According to a recent Associated Press Report:

Giving out Facebook login information violates the social network's terms of service. But those terms have no real legal weight, and experts say the legality of asking for such information remains murky.
The Department of Justice regards it as a federal crime to enter a social networking site in violation of the terms of service, but during recent congressional testimony, the agency said such violations would not be prosecuted.

Confused yet? Given that the popularity of online social networks is a fairly new phenomenon and with the use of them to "screen" applicants being even more recent, lawmakers have yet to hash out clear parameters for when or for whom these kinds of requests might be justifiable. While public sector employers are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex, race or religion, they've argued that since employees represent those who hire them, any "derogatory" behavior on the employee's part might reflect badly upon the agency's reputation.

“You’re investing these individuals that you hire with the legal authority to arrest people and to, in a worst case scenario, take someone’s life,” an Oklahoma police officer told Human Resources Journal.

Blumenthal told the Associated Press that his bill takes such considerations into account and would grant some exceptions to certain sectors like law enforcement agencies or national security as well as private companies contracted by the government.

But even with privacy safeguards in place, there's no way to assure that companies won't figure out another way get their noses all up in your business.

Update: [12:15 PM ET] Facebook has just announced that they are taking a stance against employers asking for private passwords and plan to "take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges." Read the full announcement here.

(via Associated Press)

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure