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Proposal Could Ban Employer Social Media Snooping

Lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering legislation that would block schools and employers from digging into the social media accounts of students and workers.

(TNS) — BOSTON, Mass. — As schools and employers increasingly dig into the cyberspace lives of their students and workers, privacy advocates and policymakers are pushing back against social media snooping.

State lawmakers are considering a proposal — which could come up for vote in the Senate on Thursday — to limit access to workers' Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media accounts by employers, as well as public and private schools and colleges.

The privacy law — co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead — would make it illegal for school officials or bosses to demand access to the social media passwords of students, job applicants or workers, so that their accounts can be monitored.

Most social media websites allow users to keep their profiles and posts private, or visible only to a circle of friends or connections. The proposed law does not cover public social media posts, which presumably could be seen by anyone.

Civil liberties groups, which back limits on social media snooping, say monitoring online interactions amounts to an invasion of privacy.

"Whether you work at McDonald's or a corporate law firm, your boss doesn't have the legal authority to come inside your house and rifle around in your desk looking for your diary or other private information," said Kade Crawford, director of the Technology for Liberty project with the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There's no reason that those same rules shouldn't apply in the digital era."

Chris Geehern, a spokesman for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the group hasn't taken a position on the bill but has sought to ensure that it doesn’t prevent securities companies from policing the activities of their employees.

"Our biggest concern was making sure that any changes to state law doesn't impede their ability to do that," he said.

Geehern said most private corporations are not trolling Facebook or other social media websites for dirt on their workers, because most of what people post has nothing to do with work.

"Contrary to many urban legends, employers are not sitting around looking at the social media posts of their employees," he said.

A 2017 survey found 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates before hiring.

More than a dozen states — including New Hampshire, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey — have banned corporations from demanding social-media passwords. Similar laws have been proposed in 28 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

School administrators say there is a need to monitor students' online interactions, following a spate of recent school shootings — including the massacre in Parkland, Florida — that followed threats posted by the teenage gunmen.

Supporters of the bill say it includes exemptions for schools to deal with potential security risks or police investigations tied to social networks.

It also includes exemptions for financial and securities firms protecting information, which might require social media access.

Under the proposed legislation, students who believe their privacy has been violated could bring a civil action.

©2018 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.