Blumenthal rails against employer demands for Facebook info

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Mar 26, 2012


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal is asking the federal government to investigate what he calls a "disturbing" new trend by employers -- demanding job applicants turn over their usernames and passwords to social networking websites like Facebook.

Blumenthal, a Democrat and former Connecticut attorney general, and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York submitted letters to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice on Sunday, pressing the agencies to look into the practice.

"According to recent reports, certain employers across the country are demanding the information from job applicants as part of the interview process -- including photos and personal messages not shared with anyone else," the senators said in a statement.

Both argue that the practice represents a "grave intrusion" into personal privacy, and could set a "dangerous precedent" for personal privacy and online privacy.

The senators note it also could make it more difficult for Americans to get jobs and expose employers to more discrimination claims.

"I am alarmed and outraged by rapidly and widely spreading employer practices seeking access to Facebook passwords or confidential information on other social networks," said Blumenthal, who served as Connecticut's top lawyer from 1991 to 2011.

"With few exceptions, employers do not have the need or the right to demand access to applicants' private, password-protected information."

Blumenthal said a federal investigation would decide whether the practice is illegal under federal law.

Until then, a ban on the practice, he said, is necessary to stop "unreasonable and unacceptable" invasions of privacy.

According to The Associated Press, some employers are not only asking prospective employees for their Facebook usernames and passwords, but email account access, too.

In their letter to EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien, both Blumenthal and Schumer raised concerns that by requiring job applicants to provide login credentials to social networking sites, employers will have access to private, protected information that may be impermissible to consider when making hiring decisions and may be used to unlawfully discriminate against otherwise qualified applicants.

The senators also pointed out that requiring prospective employees to turn over Facebook and other social networking or email usernames and passwords -- essentially granting access to private information that is not otherwise made public -- could give employers information they otherwise cannot ask about, such as religion, age, marital status, pregnancy status and a host of other protected classes that employers are not permitted to ask about or make hiring decisions based on.

In their letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Blumenthal and Schumer noted that two courts have found that when supervisors request employee login credentials, and access otherwise private information with those credentials, that those supervisors may be subject to civil liability.

In addition to their request for a federal investigation, the senators said they are currently drafting legislation that would seek to fill any gaps in federal law that allow employers to require personal login information from prospective employees to be considered for a job.

On Friday, Facebook came out against the reported practice.

Erin Egan, chief privacy officer for the social networking site, said it was a violation of the company's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.

"This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user's friends. It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability," she said in a statement.

"As a user, you shouldn't be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn't have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don't know and didn't intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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