Facebook Passwords, Information Need to Be Kept Private

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-03-27 Print this article Print

NEWS ANALYSIS: U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Richard Blumenthal say asking for social media passwords may be a violation of federal law. For job applicants and employers, this could open a potential legal minefield.

The recent practice of employers and would-be employers requesting Facebook and other social network log-in information is probably a violation of equal employment laws, say two Senators. U.S. Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have asked the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the practice of requiring job applicants and employees to provide their social network log-in information as a condition of employment.

The senators sent a letter to the EEOC regarding the practice. Schumer and Blumenthal noted that some jobs require comprehensive background checks, but that access to private information on social media sites could give those employers information that they are not permitted to request under federal law, such as race, religion, marital status or pregnancy status along with other protected information.

The senators also wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Justice Department to investigate whether the practice of requesting Facebook credentials violates the Stored Communications Act (SCA) (18 U.S.C. § 2701) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2)(C)). In their letter, Schumer and Blumenthal asked Holder to issue a legal opinion as to whether requesting and using prospective employees€™ social network passwords violates federal law.

€œTwo courts have found that when supervisors request employee log-in credentials, and access otherwise private information with those credentials, that those supervisors may be subject to civil liability under the SCA,€ the Senators said in their letter. €œSee Pietrylo vs. Hillstone Restaurant Group, 2009 WL 3128420 (D.N.J. 2009); Konop vs. Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., 302 F.3d 868 (9th Cir. 2002). Although these cases involved current employees, the courts€™ reasoning does not clearly distinguish between employees and applicants.€

In their letter to the EEOC, the senators point out that access to private Facebook information allows prospective employers to see information they€™re not allowed to see under federal law.

€œThis allows employers to access private information, including personal communications, religious views, national origin, family history, gender, marital status and age,€ the Senators said in their EEOC letter. €œIf employers asked for some of this information directly, it would violate federal anti-discrimination law. We are concerned that collecting this sensitive information under the guise of a background check may simply be a pretext for discrimination.€

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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