Two U.S. senators have called on the federal government to investigate the emerging practice of employers requiring job applicants to surrender user names and passwords for information such as Facebook profiles — which some have deemed an invasion of privacy.

This practice has become more common, according to recent reports, since users of social media and social networks have set their accounts to “private” in order to limit public viewing.

Although this phenomenon is thought to rarely occur in the public sector, it’s not unheard of that public employers require employees and interviewees to turn over their passwords. It’s happened before.

Perhaps the most widely known incident occurred in 2009, when Bozeman, Mont., city officials came under fire after making applicants for city jobs turn over personal data from Facebook and YouTube. After the issue circulated in the media, the city officials quickly rescinded the policy.

This is also believed to have occurred within athletic departments of major public universities. For example, The University of North Carolina recently revised its handbook to give the school’s coaches access to student athlete’s social networking sites.

According to the handbook, “Each team must identify at least one coach or administrator who is responsible for having access to and regularly monitoring the content of team members’ social networking sites and postings. The athletics department also reserves the right to have other staff members monitor athletes’ posts.”

Call to Action

To shed light on the issue, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Sunday March 25, called on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch a federal investigation which would look into the trend of employers requiring job applicants to surrender personal user names and passwords. Both senators claimed the practice is an invasion of privacy that could make it more challenging for applicants to get jobs.

“Employers have no right to ask job applicants for their house keys or to read their diaries – why should they be able to ask them for their Facebook passwords and gain unwarranted access to a trove of private information about what we like, what messages we send to people, or who we are friends with?” Schumer said in a statement.

Blumenthal and Schumer also announced that they are in the process of drafting legislation that would prevent legal loopholes that would allow employers to require job applicants to turn over their login information. In addition, the senators said they are looking into additional legal options from the EEOC and the DOJ to figure out “what protections currently exist and what additional protections are necessary.”

In the controversy’s wake, Facebook has spoken out about the issue, saying it doesn’t condone what employers have done to gain access to job applicants personal online information. In a Friday, March 23, statement, Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, said Facebook believes employers have no legal right to ask potential employees for passwords to their Facebook profiles and shouldn’t do so under any circumstances.

Initially Facebook said it would initiate legal action if needed to protect the security and privacy of its users. Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities [http://www.facebook.com/legal/terms] outlines that sharing or soliciting passwords is a violation.

After the original statement from Egan was released, Facebook released a follow-up statement over the weekend amending its position on the issue.

“We don’t think employers should be asking prospective employees to provide their passwords because we don’t think it’s right the thing to do,” the follow-up from Facebook said. “While we do not have any immediate plans to take legal action against any specific employers, we look forward to engaging with policy makers and other stakeholders, to help better safeguard the privacy of our users.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.