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Employers cross privacy line by asking for Facebook password

There's not much to "like" about an employer demanding a Facebook password from a prospective employee.

But that's just what's been happening here and there. And some applicants, faced with a tight job market and the need to support a family, have been handing over the virtual keys to their Facebook kingdom.

Robert Collins was applying to be rehired by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services after he'd left the agency because of his mother's death. He was shocked when his interviewer demanded his Facebook password, but he supplied it because he needed "to feed my family." Justin Bassett, a statistician in New York City, was faced with a similar demand from an employer. He walked away rather than go along.

For a while now, companies have been Googling job applicants and reviewing their social media presence to see what people have made publicly available, and with 845 million users, Facebook is the logical place for employers to turn. For even longer, many employers have been demanding drug tests and perusing credit reports. The latter practice has been restricted in several states, including California.

But demanding a Facebook password -- or asking an applicant to log on using a company computer and reveal all while an interviewer looks on -- represents a new level of snooping, one that could reveal private communications as well as information that employers aren't even allowed to consider as part of a hiring decision, such as an applicant's religion or sexual orientation. One law professor calls it "an egregious privacy violation."

Facebook has rightly criticized employer demands for passwords, pointing out that sharing or soliciting a password violates the site's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. The American Civil Liberties Union has also criticized employer requests for Facebook passwords.

The practice may be creepy, but it doesn't appear to be illegal. Nonetheless, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have asked the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to look into whether the practice is barred by federal law. Schumer likens the intrusive password requests to asking an applicant "for their house keys or to read their diaries."

Whether or not these analogies are apt, the senators have raised a good question. Federal officials should make a rapid determination.

Legal or not, the practice of employers demanding social-media passwords is another example of the scant privacy protections enjoyed by Americans online. Canadian experts, by contrast, say employers wouldn't be allowed to demand Facebook passwords north of the border, and no such episodes there have come to light.

The whole business is a pointed reminder that the Internet isn't like Las Vegas: What happens there doesn't necessarily remain private, even if you think no one but you has access to it. Facebook users have always had reason to be careful about what they share publicly on the site. Now they must worry about being forced to reveal what they never intended for the wider world to see.

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