New legislation introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress this month takes aim at an employer's right to ask employees for their social networking passwords.
The bills, sponsored by Democratic lawmakers, would make it illegal for an employer to require prospective or current employees to supply the employer with the passwords to their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts. Both bills describe such practices as an invasion of privacy. The Senate version, called the Password Protection Act, goes even further, extending protection to smart phones, private e-mail accounts and all information contained on an employee's personal computer.
"This is a very good step toward safeguarding the privacy of U.S. employees," says attorney Martin Sweet of legal information website THELAW.TV. "Employers should not have the right to pry into every facet of their workers' lives."
Although it does not appear to be a widespread issue, some employers do require prospective and current employees to give up their social media passwords. Government agencies appear to engage in the practice more often than private employers. The city of Bozeman, Montana made news in 2009 when news reports indicated the city was asking job applicants to reveal which social networking sites they used as well as their user names and passwords for those sites.
"Not only does this practice violate a job applicant's rights, it also forces the applicant to violate the rules of the social networking sites," explains San Diego, California employment law attorney James Mitchell of Mitchell & Gilleon Law Firm.
Most social media sites have rules that forbid users to share their log-in information with anyone. Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities clearly prohibits users from sharing their passwords or jeopardizing the security of their accounts in any way.
While proponents of the proposed legislation agree that employees should have the legal right to their social media privacy, there appears to be a disagreement over whether students should be extended those rights. The Password Protection Act would not protect college, high school and elementary school students, but similar social media privacy legislation introduced last month by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) would protect students. The American Civil Liberties Union is on record as saying students need to be included in the legislation.
"Young people are obviously avid users of social networking sites, but there is always a dilemma in deciding whether students – particularly minors – should be afforded the same privacy rights as adults," adds Sweet.