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Balancing Online Privacy With Employers' Right to Know

A potential employer asks for your Facebook user name and password. That's currently a completely legal and growing practice among California companies. But now, state lawmakers are weighing the Social Media Privacy Act, which would bar employers from asking potential hires for their usernames and passwords on social media sites.

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Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED

Some companies are asking for prospective employees social media passwords.


HOST MINA KIM: More and more employers are using Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites to screen job applicants, according to national surveys.

And now state lawmakers are considering legislation that would bar employers from asking potential hires for their usernames and passwords on social media sites. The "Social Media Privacy Act" just passed unanimously out of the Assembly Labor Committee, and its Senate counterpart just sailed through a key committee as well. State Senator Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, is sponsoring a Senate version of the bill. And Senator Yee, first tell us what your bill would do. 

LELAND YEE: This is to ensure that information that is in your social media accounts are personal and private, and they ought to not be in the hands of anybody who simply wants to know that information to hire you or to admit you into a college.

KIM: In the state of Maryland, a case of a correctional officer being asked for his Facebook password brought national attention to this issue. How big a problem is it here? Have you been hearing from constituents complaining about this?

YEE: Absolutely. We had one case where someone who wanted a job here in the Sacramento area was asked if he could, in fact, turn over ways of getting into his social media account. When he refused, he was denied a job. 

KIM: Do you think it's more common in a weak job market when employers have the upper hand?

YEE: Absolutely. Yes. You can imagine that people are desperate for jobs. They have to make ends meet, and when there are no prospects of a job or income coming in, then people are put in these kind of difficult positions and sometimes they should not. They know they should not, but then, unfortunately, they do turn that information over.

KIM: Some employers have said there are legitimate reasons to access a job seekers' personal website, like making sure that someone who already has a job isn't posting trade secrets of their current employer, or that they're not using illegal drugs, or even to protect themselves from claims that they didn't properly vet job seekers' mental health, or something like that. What do you think about that?

YEE: When you do, if fact, open up your social media accounts, all kinds of personal information may be there. But information that, by law, no employer can, in fact, get your religion, sexual orientation, other kinds of personal, private information are out of bounds by both state law and federal law. So, it's not just simply about getting information. There are confidential, protected information that employers will be getting, and that's wrong.

KIM: Do you think it's legitimate to ask for that kind of information for jobs that require, for example, the use of weapons, like a security job? Or for people who work with kids?

YEE: Well, clearly there are going to be some type of jobs that can, in fact, present a public safety issue, a public safety risk. And those we will handle within our bill. But, in general, no one should be forced; no one should be coerced in giving up your personal, private information. What is personal, what is private ought to stay that way. After all, we live in a free society. We live in a democratic society, and we should, in fact, abide by those principles.

KIM: Now, Maryland passed a similar law yesterday. What does that do for your bill's momentum?

YEE: Well, what has happened is that there are just more and more states that are beginning to understand that the social media accounts so, in fact, have personal and private information, and if states do not somehow enact their own laws, that they are putting the residents in those states at risk. It's extremely important that individual states respond to this emerging problem.

KIM: Senator Yee, thanks for talking to us.

YEE: No, thank you for doing this.

KIM: State Senator Leland Yee is sponsoring the "Social Media Privacy Act," which would bar employers from asking job applicants for their social media usernames and passwords.


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