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Democrats to employers: Stop asking for Facebook passwords

The Password Protection Act of 2012 would make it illegal for employers to force current or potential employees to hand over access to their social network accounts.

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Democrats in Washington are aiming to protect employees being asked to hand over the keys to their Facebook accounts.

A new bill introduced yesterday in the U.S. Senate would seek to stop employers from requesting passwords or access to an employee's account on Facebook and other social networks.

Known as the Password Protection Act Of 2012 (PDF), the bill is the latest response from politicians over the growing trend of employers eager to snoop around their workers' online accounts.

In some cases, current employees are being pressured to allow access to their Facebook accounts. A teacher's aide in Michigan was recently suspended after refusing to provide access to her Facebook account to the school's superintendent.

In other cases, job applicants are being asked to log into and use their accounts while the interviewer watches.

The bill was unveiled in the Senate by Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

In the House, Congressmen Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) are introducing an identical companion bill.

As described on Blumenthal's Web site, the bill would:

  • prohibit an employer from forcing prospective or current employees to provide access to their own private account as a condition of employment.
  • prohibit employers from discriminating or retaliating against a prospective or current employee because that employee refuses to provide access to a password-protected account.

As a further condition, the bill would only prohibit adverse employment-related actions as a consequence of an employee's failure to provide access to their own private accounts. It preserves the rights of employers to: permit social networking within the office on a voluntary basis, set policies for employer-operated computer systems, and hold employees accountable for stealing data from their employers.

Employers who violate the act could face financial penalties.

"Employers seeking access to passwords or confidential information on social networks, e-mail accounts, or other protected Internet services is an unreasonable and intolerable invasion of privacy," said Blumenthal in a statement. "With few exceptions, employers do not have the need or the right to demand access to applicants' private, password-protected information."

Heinrich raised the point that information found on Facebook could be used against an employee.

"Employers demanding Facebook passwords or confidential information on other social networks is an egregious privacy violation and should be against the law," Heinrich said in a statement. "Personal information like race, religion, age, and sexual orientation is often accessible on social networking profiles, and by having access to this information employers could discriminate against an applicant who would otherwise be qualified for a job."

Other lawmakers have been pushing for similar legislation. Last month, Reps. Eliot Engle (D-N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) introduced the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA), which would ban current or potential employers from requiring a username, password, or other access to online content. SNOPA goes a little further in protecting students--it would also apply to schools and universities.

The ACLU, while praising the new Password Protection Act for its sweeping scope, says its "most glaring omission is the lack of coverage for students."