Bill seeks to protect workers' social media passwords

Bill seeks to protect workers' social media passwords

February 18th, 2013 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

A Facebook sign-in page is ready for passwords to be entered.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Document: House Bill 117

POLL: Should employees be able to demand workers' social media passwords?

Would you give up the password for your Facebook page to get - or keep - a job?

You wouldn't have to under a bill introduced in the Georgia General Assembly by Rep. Sandra Scott, D-Rex.

"I feel like that is your business," Scott said. "An employer should not have the right to go snooping. My emails, my Facebook and Twitter, that's my personal space."

While it's uncertain how many employers actually seek to pry into current and future workers' social media accounts, the issue has generated interest -- and outrage -- from politicians and users of social media.

Half a dozen states -- California, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and New Jersey -- already have passed legislation banning employers from requesting social media passwords, Scott said, and similar bills are in the works in 18 state legislatures.

She didn't think Tennessee was among the states. Thursday was the cut-off to propose legislation in the Republican-controlled Tennessee Legislature, and a search for social media passwords on the General Assembly's website didn't turn up any new bills.

U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., recently announced they would ask the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to determine whether the practice violates federal law.

Blumenthal said he would draft federal legislation to stop employers from seeking Facebook passwords, which he called an "unreasonable invasion of privacy."

Began in Bozeman

John Bode, a Chattanooga attorney with the firm Miller & Martin who represents management in labor disputes, said the controversy began in the city of Bozeman, Mont.

There was a firestorm of protest after media in Bozeman reported in summer 2009 that city government required prospective employees to hand over passwords for "any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo,, MySpace, etc."

Tech media website CNET quoted Bozeman's assistant city manager, Chuck Winn, as saying, "Shame on us if there was information out there available about a person who applied for a job who was a child molester or had some sort of information out there on the Internet that kind of showed those propensities and we didn't look for it, we didn't ask, and we hired that person."

Angry emails jammed City Hall mailboxes, CNET reported, and a Bozeman TV station poll found that 98 percent of respondents felt the policy was an invasion of privacy.

In response, Bozeman abruptly dropped the policy.

Employers' requests for passwords haven't skyrocketed since then, according to Bode.

"I don't think the percentage of employers [seeking passwords] is a very large percentage," he said.

But requests for passwords is the sort of thing that can "build on itself," he said.

Bode compared it to employment drug screening, which he said became widespread because employers who didn't screen worried they might get stuck with drug-abusing employees.

Scott couldn't give examples of businesses that have asked for passwords, but she said she's heard of cases from her constituents. Scott's 76th District includes Clayton County, a mainly black, working-class suburb south of Atlanta.

"A lot of people do not report it to the authorities when it happens, but they do talk about it," she said. "You have a lot of people saying it has happened to them."

Employers view public web info

Bode said studies show that 70 percent of employers look at a job candidate's publicly available information on social media sites.

The Catoosa County Sheriff's Office will check out an applicant's online persona.

"We go and see if there's anything public on their social media," Capt. Christopher Lyons said. "Anything illegal or possibly immoral that would go against our ethics."

Sheriff Gary Sisk said his office hasn't asked any employee to hand over passwords.

The sheriff's office does have a social media policy that forbids employees to mention their work on their personal pages, he said.

Common sense dictates that law enforcement personnel keep their digital footprints small. Sisk said the sheriff's office discourages employees from putting personal information online for their own safety. Someone who's upset about being arrested might use it against a deputy or jailer.

"If you've chosen this career path, you need to be cautious," Sisk said. "We frown on [personnel] sharing too much."

Scott's bill would make an exception for work accounts or employees under investigation.

Scott said she expects HB 117 to pass this session.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.