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January 31, 2013

Facebook Passwords Off-Limits for Many Employers

A few months ago, I read that employers were demanding Facebook passwords from potential employees. I was incredulous — that had to be illegal, right?

Turns out, it wasn’t.

In fact, the gross breech of personal privacy was rapidly becoming standard practice for many big firms across the United States. Job candidates were required to hand over their login information as part of the employment screening process, and employers used the credentials to poke around applicants’ personal pages. Their defense? It was a necessary evil, nothing more than a tool to help recruiters judge the overall character of potential new hires.

As word spread about this trend, individuals and activist groups the nation over began to publically condemn the practice. It didn’t take long for state governments to hear their cries and new laws banning the practice officially went into effect on the first day of 2013.

Congress Couldn’t Get the Job Done

According to a write up on The Hill, a partisan split over employee privacy prevented the new law from moving forward. Go figure. Then, in May 2012, things finally started looking up. Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) filed a bill called the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA) that would prevent employers as well as schools and universities from asking for social networking passwords from students or employees.

Seems like everything was good to go, right? Not so fast — this is Washington we’re talking about. A separate group of lawmakers had legislation of their own — a bill called the Password Protection Act (PPA). This bill would protect employees and job candidates, but it would leave students out in the cold. However, at a press conference held last year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CONN) did point out that he would be willing to tweak the bill to add a provision covering schools.

Although lawmakers on the hill repeatedly assured the American people that a password protection law was on the way, movement on the issue has slowed to a crawl. That didn’t sit well with the states, so some state legislatures slapped the issue on their own agendas instead.

States Step Up

Since Uncle Sam was having so much trouble getting the job done, some states have decided to step up and take matters into their own hands. Six states have made it official: as of Jan. 1, 2013, it became illegal for employers to demand employees or job candidates hand over the credentials for their social networking accounts. Illinois, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Michigan are the lucky six, and a handful of other states have similar bills in the works.

According to a Wired post, some state politicians are voicing opinions on the problem of social networking privacy in light of the passage of the new laws. California Assemblywoman Nora Campos, for example, had this to say about the issue:

“Our social-media accounts offer views into our personal lives and expose information that would be inappropriate to discuss during a job interview due to the inherent risk of creating biases in the minds of employers,” Campos said. “In order to continue to minimize the threat of bias and discrimination in the workplace and the hiring process, California must continue to evolve its privacy protections to keep pace with advancing technology.”

So, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering what’s going on with the other states. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 14 states have introduced legislation dealing with the issue. However, some of those states are farther along in the lawmaking process than others.

For example, in Massachusetts, a bill banning employer access to social media accounts was introduced back in March, but there’s been no movement since its introduction. Similarly, in Missouri, a bill managed to make it to committee by April, but it’s still hanging out in limbo to this day.

Other states are attempting to pass privacy bills that read a little broader. For instance, NBC reported that a Texas state Senate bill (S.B. 118) was introduced last month that would outlaw employers from demanding access to the personal accounts of both employees and job applicants “through electronic communication devices.”

If you want to find out if your state has taken action of its own on the social media privacy front, you can. Simply head over to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ site and skim the list of states.

Internet and the Future of Privacy

The issue of social media account password privacy is not an isolated event — far from it, in fact. As technology evolves and the Internet becomes an increasingly dominant force in our daily lives, our online privacy continues to diminish.

Take, for example, recent findings about tracking cookies published in the Harvard Law & Policy Review by a group of privacy researchers. The paper compares online tracking to the practice of telemarketing, outlining ways in which companies are building sophisticated tracking technology designed to stamp out all user attempts to circumvent it. The paper gives an example: some advertisers have implemented cookies with multiple identifiers that have the ability to reinstate one another (kind of like viruses) in order to fight deletion by users. The paper’s authors discovered that advertisers are more than willing to use technology designed to sidestep settings on individual users’ own computers. Scary stuff.

The states that enacted social media account password privacy laws are headed in the right direction. However, total privacy is not a right online. The Net is an interconnected web of separate entities, and we must proceed at our own risk.

Nell Terry is a tech news junkie, fledgling Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She thrives on social media, web design, and uncovering the truth about all the newest marketing fads that pop up all over the Net. Find out more about Nell by visiting her online portfolio at Content by Nell.