Lawmakers Try to Ban Facebook ‘Shoulder Surfing’ by Employers

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Even in a marketplace where people routinely trade access to their personal data for small freebies like online games and coupons, some employers have provoked outrage by demanding to see job applicants’ private Facebook pages. Now, lawmakers are wading into the fray with legislation that would prohibit the practice of “shoulder surfing” on the part of hiring managers. 

In Maryland, a bill introduced last month by Democrat Ronald Young passed the Senate; a corresponding bill has been introduced in the House. If the House bill is approved by first a committee and then the entire chamber, this ban on shoulder surfing could become law in October.

In their current forms, both bills would prohibit employers from requiring job applicants to disclose user names, passwords or other login credentials to a “a personal account or service,” in the Senate bill’s verbiage. The Senate bill also aims to prohibit “an employer from failing or refusing to hire an applicant as a result of the applicant’s refusal to disclose certain password and related information,” although privacy experts have pointed out that would be an uphill battle for a rejected job-seeker to prove they were passed over for a job on these grounds.

(MORE: Can Interviewers Insist on ‘Shoulder Surfing’ Your Facebook Page?)

In California, Assembly Member Nora Campos just introduced a bill last month with similar language that would prohibit companies from asking for social network login credentials.

An Illinois bill initially introduced last spring by Representative La Shawn Ford was recently taken up by the state legislature. The bill, which Ford told a local news outlet he expected to pass by the end of the state’s spring legislative session, would amend the state’s existing workplace privacy law. “It shall be unlawful for any employer to ask any prospective employee to provide any username, password, or other related account information in order to gain access to a social networking website where that prospective employee maintains an account or profile,” it reads.

(MORE: Background Check for the Digital Age: Employers, Colleges Insist on Full Facebook Access)

This type of legislation faces opposition from pro-business groups on the grounds that it over-regulates companies’ hiring practices. “Employers and employer groups are going to oppose such legislation because they view this as a mechanism for filtering out what they perceive to be poor employees,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

But privacy advocates like Stephens applaud lawmakers’ efforts to protect workers from an employer snooping within their private social networks. “It’s important because it’s a major and frightening violation of privacy to allow a potential employer to see all of your social networking postings,” he says. “Social networks are set up so you can limit who can see what you’ve posted. There are very granular controls and demanding access defeats the whole purpose of that.”