Senators demand probe into bosses' Facebook password requests

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Two US senators are demanding an investigation into allegations that many employers are ordering staff and job applicants to hand over their Facebook passwords.

Last week, Facebook's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, revealed a trend for companies to seek access to their staff's private information, and warned that employees should just say no.

However, this is easier said than done, which is why Charles Schumer and Richard Blumenthal are demanding an investigation by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the US Department of Justice.

"Employers have no right to ask job applicants for their house keys or to read their diaries – why should they be able to ask them for their Facebook passwords and gain unwarranted access to a trove of private information about what we like, what messages we send to people, or who we are friends with?" says Schumer.

"In an age where more and more of our personal information – and our private social interactions – are online, it is vital that all individuals be allowed to determine for themselves what personal information they want to make public and protect personal information from their would-be employers. This is especially important during the job-seeking process, when all the power is on one side of the fence."

The pair points out that such requests represent a dangerous precedent - and could also leave employers liable to discrimination suits, as the data they uncover could include information they're not otherwise allowed to ask about, such as religion, age, marital status and pregnancy status. 

"A ban on these practices is necessary to stop unreasonable and unacceptable invasions of privacy," says Blumenthal.

"With few exceptions, employers do not have the need or the right to demand access to applicants’ private, password-protected information."

The move, as you'd expect, has strong support from the American Civil Liberties Union. Indeed, earlier this month the ACLU filed a lawsuit when a Minnesota student was ordered by her school to hand over Facebook and email log-ins after allegations that she'd had online conversations about sex with another student off-campus.

"In a time when we share so much through new technology, we need clear rules to makes sure that we can keep control of our own information," says ACLU Legislative Counsel Chris Calabrese.

"One of them should be that a password means 'stay out' — whether you're an employer, a school or the government. And end-runs around password protection, like asking an employee to login so someone can take a look, are also unacceptable."