States Rush to Ban Employers from Asking for Social Media Passwords

Should your boss ever have access to your Facebook page? What about a prospective boss? Or your school administrator? Lawmakers in more than 30 states have considered those questions this session.

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Robert Galbraith / REUTERS

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's co-founder and chief executive at a press event in Menlo Park, California, April 4, 2013.

Should your boss ever have access to your Facebook page? What about a prospective boss? Or your school administrator?

The current hubbub in state capitals about social media access started when a job-seeker named Robert Collins had an interview with the Maryland Department of Corrections in late 2010. His interviewer, according to testimony Collins later gave before a state House committee, demanded access to his Facebook account and started sifting through his personal messages and photos to make sure Collins didn’t “have any gang affiliation.” Feeling his privacy had been violated, Collins approached his local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU was predictably appalled, and the story of an employer demanding to see behind the social-media curtain started to blow up.

The local ACLU’s outcry eventually inspired Maryland’s state lawmakers  to pass the nation’s first ban on employers asking current or prospective employees for such usernames or passwords. After that statute got put on the books last May, six other states followed suit in 2012. And lawmakers in more than 30 states have continued the trend this year, proposing more than 60 related bills during their 2013 sessions.

Some bills, like one on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, are tailored to employees and employers. Other bills, like one sent to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe last week, forbid higher education institutions from asking students for access to their social media accounts. Still others, like one proposed this session in Hawaii, cover both. And some lawmakers have even tackled more indirect practices, such as applicants being asked to “friend” someone from HR or “shoulder surfing” (when the interviewer asks the applicant to poke around on the account while watching over his or her shoulder).

Many state legislators, Republican and Democrat, are arguing that better protections need to be in place and clearer lines need to be drawn, particularly for prospective employees. “In this job market, especially, employers clearly have the upper hand,” a sponsor of the New Jersey bill recently said. “Demanding this information is akin to coercion when it might mean the difference between landing a job and not being able to put food on the table for your family.” In his testimony before Maryland lawmakers, Collins said he “really needed” the job, so he “reluctantly” gave up the keys to his digital assets.

Allie Bohm, a policy strategist for the ACLU, says that employers are legally allowed to ask for access to social media accounts in the absence of such laws. Other experts have said the expectations of privacy are unclear. The legal realm remains a grey area because the rule-makers are still catching up to the technology. “The law just does not contemplate that we were going to be moving our lives online,” Bohm says. She points out that employers put themselves at risk if they do ask for access, however: should they learn information that they’re not allowed to consider when making a hire—that an applicant is, say, pregnant—and then don’t give the applicant a job, they’ve opened themselves up to potential lawsuits.

Members of the business community have pushed back against some of the proposals. Bohm says this is often due to misunderstandings, like employers mistakenly worrying that they’ll lose control over work email accounts, too. In Washington, State Rep. Mike Sells supported an amendment at the behest of some business groups that would have allowed bosses to search social media accounts during company investigations. But he withdrew it last week, saying the language didn’t specify clearly enough what kind of evidence the head honchos would need before asking for access. “In the bills this year, lawmakers are seeking the balance between employee and employer concerns,”  says Pam Greenberg, who monitors technology trends for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

These proposals have spread at lightning speed despite a dearth of data about how many employers or school administrators out there are actually demanding access to Facebook pages or Twitter feeds. Advocates and state lawmakers have pointed to an Associated Press article from March 2012 as a piece of evidence that the trend is widespread, though neither Bohm nor Greenberg is aware of a more comprehensive survey of the phenomenon.

Bohm argues that laws are needed regardless, whether they’re being used to stop or prevent people from being asked for what many view as private information. Some of this session’s bills governing employer or school access to social media have already died. A few, in states such as New Mexico and Utah, have already been enacted. But the majority are still in committees or on calendars, according to the NCSL’s count. And Greenberg warns that many states will be out of session by May, which means lawmakers have to move quickly if they don’t want to see their bills expire when summer recess begins.

84 comments
DebbieHarris1
DebbieHarris1

I believe we need these laws to protect everyone's privacy but we also need a lot more education about using social media and understanding it's global permanent nature.  Privacy settings, appropriate postings and photos, etc. all have to be addressed especially to our youth.  Social media is an incredible form of communication that allows us to reach across the street or across the globe but it must be respected and used appropriately.  Employers take a risk when they check out Facebook pages and no one should have to feel "coerced" into giving up private information like their login and password in order to get a job or be admitted into a college.  Facebook's Rights and Responsibilities clearly state that you should not divulge that information to anyone.  Much education is needed for this new medium that has created a cultural revolution in communication both personally and professionally.  

SteveRymer
SteveRymer

The states need to ban these stupid personality tests also, ban Kronos, PeopleAnswers, these in house tests like Target's, etc and watch how fast the unemployment rate drops.

Live Adnan
Live Adnan

i think there should be 2 face book accounts, 1 for private friends/relatives & other for colleagues/peers like Linkedin coz privacy becoming difficult to control especially with only 1 available medium.

Tanya Denise Iverson
Tanya Denise Iverson

What I do in my free time is my business and not my bosses.. What is the world coming to where your job wants to be able to know what goes on in your private time..

Tammy Belka
Tammy Belka

No. My boss already wastes enough time on the Internet.

Jonathan M. Johnny
Jonathan M. Johnny

It's a huge NO. Only time it COULD be even remotely reasonable and by a long shot at that would be if they request it AFTER you logged in to a social media site using a work computer. If that clause was added to contracts, people would potentially be way more productive at work.

Will Dean
Will Dean

Isn't that like asking for your photo albums and your friends' phone numbers? What kind of idiots would even ask?

Emmie Moore
Emmie Moore

No! y should he or her? I would never say anything nagative about him or her never.

JosieBehnke
JosieBehnke

No, you might as well ask me to allow you into my home for you to go through for anything you don't agree with. It's a violation of privacy, now if they want to check it out, fine but you are not getting a hold of messages, access to my kids pictures or my friends that don't have their privacy set to public.

cleverlyc
cleverlyc

Oh NO, can't have my facebook password, but how about some pee in a bottle?

Alfredo Irizarry
Alfredo Irizarry

If a law like that is passed Facebook will go out of business.

Barbara L. Brown
Barbara L. Brown

do i want him in my house, my car, with me and my friends, etc? i don't think so. does he want me in his? he's a great guy but really...

Louie N. Reyes
Louie N. Reyes

I can understand employers demanding to know passwords to work computers, but social media passwords are private and personal. Employers have no right to demand them.

Rita Sor
Rita Sor

Its a big NO NO NO NO...

Ricky Ric
Ricky Ric

If Th3y wnt 2_knw, Th3y must pay HIGH 4_M¥_Privasi ! If Th3y dont, i gu3ss i knw wht 2_D0:

Marla Winter
Marla Winter

I don't know why this is even an issue. Would you share your passwords for your bank account or any other site you use? Idiocracy.

Skyeghost4
Skyeghost4

How do I know that the potential employer will not place something in your facebook page that it is completely false???Something that they placed in your facebook page to "Not to Hire You?" Friend someone you have no idea who they are??  I am NOT a public figure and do not want to be!!!!

Lisa Miles
Lisa Miles

Because they want to see if you a bashing them or doing other " stuff" that might be grounds to demote,layoff, fire, ect you. What you do , say ,out side of work should be you business

Derik Rene Albert
Derik Rene Albert

Definitely not. It's an invasion of my personal life and I will not tolerate ANYONE invading my personal life. If I'm not doing anything illegal, gtfo

Will Convery
Will Convery

No, the same as they don't get access to your house

Robyn Wharton
Robyn Wharton

Absolutely NOT! however the company has the right to prevent their computers being used for private entertainment.

David Runyon
David Runyon

No. Why would this even be thought of as an option? Should employers be able to take your phone and look through your text messages and call log as well?

Lisa Miles
Lisa Miles

Good because my personal life is just that- mine!

Evilla Dollyz
Evilla Dollyz

I think its an invasion of privacy. Work and anything outside the home needs to stay there.

Mark de Graaf
Mark de Graaf

If they want to access the FB page, why not give them keys to the house too? How about allowing them to interfere with kids education also? Wake up next to your partner? No, go the whole hog and wake up next to the CEOs dog.

Heian
Heian

@SteveRymer You don't know how...the economy works, do you?

Yes, it's those personality tests that keep unemployment in existence.

Heian
Heian

@Alfredo Irizarry Yes, if employers can't look at my facebook, somehow they will go out of business.

What?

....WHAT!?

Ladies and gents, somebody who doesn't really understand...anything! *ta-da*

SteveRymer
SteveRymer

@Heian @SteveRymer Yes, these personality tests are a major part of the problem. The economy wouldn't be half as bad if employers didn't use them, why do you think people quit looking for a job? After a year of trying and being red flagged they simply give up. So, which personality company do you work/troll for?