A growing number of employers and schools are demanding that job applicants, employees, and students hand over the passwords to their private social networking accounts.

Such demands constitute a grievous invasion of privacy. Private activities that would never be intruded upon offline should not receive less privacy protection simply because they take place online. An employer or school official would not be permitted to read an applicant’s or students diary or mail, listen in on the chatter at their private gatherings with friends, or look at their private videos and photo albums. Similarly, they should not be permitted to demand access to their electronic equivalents. 

The privacy line should be clear: Any communications not intended to be viewable by the public are out of bounds for employers or school officials. But current laws are inadequate to protect individuals from these flagrant invasions of privacy. Comprehensive legislation should:

  • Make it illegal for any government, private employer, or public or private school to require, request, suggest, or cause any student, employee, or prospective employee to provide passwords to Facebook or any other password-protected accounts.
  • Make it illegal for employers to require employees to permit access to private material through indirect routes, such as requiring employees to add them to their private social networks (e.g., by “friending” them) as a condition of employment. The legislation should likewise make it illegal for schools to do the same as a condition for receiving educational benefits or privileges such as participating on a sports team.
  • Make it illegal for employers to discharge, discipline, or otherwise penalize any employee who refuses to provide access to private materials, or to threaten to do so. It should also be illegal for employers to refuse to hire prospective employees for this reason.

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