Hand over your passwords, or else

Christopher White walked into his job interview with all the right materials – a cover letter detailing his work, a resume and a list of references. But his potential employer asked for the one thing he didn’t bring: his Facebook password.

White, a political science senior at Tulane University, is one of a growing number of students who have been asked for their social media account information during interviews for jobs, university admissions or during employment.

Some argue the social network information is needed for people entering specific fields, like journalism or athletics, where the employee is in the spotlight. But civil rights organizations and some lawmakers disagree, and are taking steps to end the practice.

White applied to be a financial adviser at a company based in Colonie, N.Y., in November 2011. He said his first interview went well, and he was called back for a second. After submitting his Social Security card, birth certificate and other information, the company asked for his Facebook login and password.

“It caught me off guard; it was just random,” he said. “The way that they asked it, it was just like ‘we’re gonna need this, if you don’t mind.’”

White did mind, he said, and when he declined to hand it over, the employer asked, “Why? What do you have to hide?” before continuing to badger him for access. White repeatedly said no until he became frustrated and walked out of the interview, he said. He did not hear from the company again.

“I feel like they were going to give me the job, but the Facebook thing was the last step,” he said. “When I said no, it was obvious I wasn’t going to get the job after that.”

White said this was the first time an employer – or anyone, for that matter – had requested his password.

“I didn’t think it was right; I didn’t think you could actually do that,” he said. “Why do they need to go on something that’s your personal account? You shouldn’t even judge anyone off their Facebook because what you’re like online may not be what you’re like in the workplace.”

It’s technically not illegal for an employer or university to ask for the information, but there’s also no mandate that says an applicant must hand the information over, said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But if the applicant refuses, as White did, they run the risk of not being hired, Calabrese said.

“If you don’t give it over, it’s likely you won’t get a job, and you won’t have any recourse,” he said. “It’s an unfair situation to put a student in.”

Rachael Moore, an education senior at James Madison University, agreed, saying she felt like she had no choice but to comply with the request when she was asked for her Facebook information.

“I needed a job, so I had to suck it up,” she said.

Moore was applying to work as a camp counselor in Virginia during summer 2011 when the camp administration gave her the option of supplying her Facebook password or becoming “friends” with the management so they could bypass her account’s privacy settings.

“They said it was part of the application process; they said ‘you’re almost hired, but we have to look at your profile,’” she said. “I guess that was their form of a background check, but you can only see my Facebook if you’re friends with me.”

Moore said she understood why the director would want to view her profile, but she was taken aback when they were so direct.

When she questioned their request, she said the director told her, “You can’t work here if you don’t.”

“I was so confused, so I just said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll friend request you then,’” she said. “Of course I wasn’t going to give someone my password.”

Moore said she felt like her rights were violated, adding “it seemed like they were under the assumption that I was guilty until proven innocent.” She said she considers herself a responsible adult and keeps her profile professional, but she thought they crossed the line.

Calabrese said it’s an invasion of privacy.

“We think that everyone has the right to a private life, and just because your private life is accessible in some way… it doesn’t mean it’s right for them to look at it,” he said. “You should be able to live your life online and have the same private life as you would offline.”

Calabrese said the ACLU has seen an increase in complaints about the practice within the last six months, but “even one employer doing this is too many.”

“We worry if we don’t draw the line right now it will become common practice and appear on the standard [employment] application form,” he said.

Calabrese said state lawmakers are working to combat the issue before it reaches that point. He said a number of state politicians are drafting legislation that would ban the practice among employers, universities or both.

One example, he said, is Maryland, which was the first state to pass a social media privacy protection bill. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the bill May 2, making it illegal for employers to ask job applicants or workers to hand over login information for Facebook and other social media sites.

Bradley Shear, a Bethesda, Md., lawyer who has been a catalyst in the trend, said employees have an expectation of privacy for their personal accounts, and the movement in this legislation is to protect that.

He said the only time asking for a login and password is appropriate is when an employer requests information for a corporate account.

The issue is of particular importance for journalists and journalism students looking for media jobs, with a number of notable incidents of reporters coming under fire for social media posts. Some argue journalists must be held to different standards because of their roles as neutral observers – and in some cases as public figures.

Most recently, reporter Mark Krzos of the Fort Myers News-Press made headlines for a post on his personal Facebook page. Krzos was assigned to cover “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” born out of controversy over the restaurant’s stance on gay marriage.

“I have never felt so alien in my own country as I did today while covering the restaurant’s supporters,” Krzos wrote, according to media blogger Jim Romenesko. “The level of hatred, unfounded fear and misinformed people was astoundingly sad.”

Krzos later pulled the post. News-Press Executive Editor Terry Eberle told Romenesko it was “completely inappropriate” and vowed to take “strong and appropriate action.”

In June, a reporter at the Colorado Springs Gazette was placed on administrative leave after sharing a story on his Facebook page about the sale of the newspaper. He was later reinstated but declined to come back, tweeting that he was no longer interested in working for “that type of corporate culture.”

Ellyn Angelotti, digital trends and social media faculty member at the Poynter Institute, said for certain fields, such as journalism, employees must maintain their public persona inside and outside the office.

“It’s tough because in social media you really blur the line between professional and personal, and there are both personal benefits to associating yourself with your employer, tweeting about things that are related to your job, and there are also some professional benefits – your employer can benefit from your Twitter following or your fans on Facebook,” Angelotti said.

“It’s one of the situations where it can be a win-win situation if you find a way to skate that line, but at the same time, it’s fraught with peril. If you do one wrong move, it could upset your employers.”

To remedy this, she said it’s common for journalists to maintain separate professional and personal accounts. While the personal accounts should remain guarded, she said the corporate accounts are fair game.

“When it’s a corporate account, someone on the digital media team is going there, and the team is going to have the password,” Angelotti said. “If you’re going to be tweeting on behalf of the company on company time, then the company is going to want to have access to that account in case something happens or somebody leaves, so that’s much more acceptable.”

She said the password dilemma is often more an ethical questions than a legal question, but with new laws and court decisions, more legal guidance will be available.

And soon, Calabrese added.

California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey are among the states working on social media privacy bills, according to the ACLU. The language of the individual bills differs, with some limited to employers asking for information from current employees or to applicants, and others including schools and universities.

Shear said Delaware was the first to enact a law that also protects schools, students and applicants.

The Delaware bill prohibits both public and private colleges and universities from requiring students to disclose social media user names and passwords.

Sen. Brian Bushweller, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, told the Student Press Law Center the bill is “on the cutting edge of issues that our society will be facing because of the rapid proliferation of social media and technology development.”

Shear applauded Delaware and other states – like Illinois, which enacted a similar law Aug. 1 – for making headway, saying, “Every state should pass legislation that protects colleges, universities, students, and prospective students.”

He said it’s important to include students and universities in the bills because “schools should not have a duty to social media monitor their students’ personal digital accounts.” He said schools don’t have the power to “bug” students’ apartments or cars, so schools should not try to police them online.

In addition to the state laws, though, Shear stressed the need for a federal law to ensure uniformity.

He said he worked with Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., to draft the proposed Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA), which would protect social media users from having to divulge information to employers, schools and universities. It would protect those who are already employed or enrolled, those seeking employment or admittance, and those facing disciplinary action.

Jeremy Tomasulo, spokesman for Engel, said the bill is in currently in the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He said no hearings have been scheduled yet.

Until SNOPA or a similar bill passes, Calabrese said students, applicants and employees should learn the rules for their respective states. He said knowing the law can help someone if they are put in a situation where they are asked for their personal account information.

“You can learn about what the law says and whether you have to give it up,” he said. “If it’s illegal, it’s possible the employer didn’t know. If it is legal, it’s a difficult situation, and that’s why we are trying to pass these laws.”

Both White and Moore said they had no idea if the practice was legal or not when they were under scrutiny. They said if students aren’t aware of their state’s law, they recommend asking the employer why it’s necessary.

Moore said it’s important to ask questions before you know what you’re getting into.

“Or I would say to deactivate your account before you start applying,” White joked.

By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer.