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SNOPA bill seeks to keep employers out of private social networks

April 30, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • The average Facebook profile can be overflowing with information that could be used to piece together a detailed composite of a job applicant.
The average Facebook profile can be overflowing with information that… (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images )

You might just be able to make a federal case out of an employer asking to snoop around your social networking account if a new bill wends its way into becoming law.

The Social Networking Online Protection Act, or SNOPA, was introduced late last week by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.).

If passed, SNOPA would "prohibit current and potential employers for requiring a username, password or other access to online content," according to a news release on Engel's website. These constraints would also apply to schools from kindergarten through university level. 

This comes amid renewed focus on the intersection of privacy and technology when it comes to private life in the public online square. The heat was turned up on the issue after the Associated Press published a report on an incident in 2011 in which an employer had required password access to an applicant's Facebook account.

In response in March, Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the Justice Department look into whether such practice violates the Stored Communications Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Maryland recently passed a bill banning the practice. It awaits Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature to make it law. Similar bills have been introduced in California and Illinois.

Many civil rights and privacy advocates have described employers' asking for social networking passwords as being akin to requiring applicants and employees to hand over the keys to their homes and consent to an in-home search.

"Passwords are the gateway to many avenues containing personal and sensitive content -- including email accounts, bank accounts and other information,” said Engel.

Engel went on to say, "We must draw the line somewhere and define what is private.  No one would feel comfortable going to a public place and giving out their username and passwords to total strangers." 

Legal experts have pointed out that requiring password access to an applicant or employee's accounts is not just a violation of the applicant’s privacy but a potential violation for every "friend" attached to that person.

In addition, delving into someone's account could be hazardous to those hiring as it potentially puts employers in contact with details that are off-limits in the hiring process, such as ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, religion and pre-existing medical conditions.

The SNOPA bill's other co-sponsor, Schakowsky, said in a prepared statement: "The American people deserve the right to keep their personal accounts private.  No one should have to worry that their personal account information, including passwords, can be required by an employer or educational institution, and if this legislation is signed into law, no one will face that possibility.”

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SNOPA bill seeks to keep employers out of your private social network

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