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Michigan Bill Aims to Keep Businesses From Seeking Online Passwords

The bill would outlaw the practice of employers requiring prospective hires to turn over their passwords to social networking sites as a condition of employment. It also pertains to educational institutions and prospective students.

December 3, 2012

Submitting an application, a résumé and a few references used to be enough, but some businesses have begun asking job applicants to turn over passwords to their Facebook, Twitter or personal email accounts, as well.

Groups opposing that kind of job applicant probing have the practice well on its way to being banned in Michigan with privacy-protecting legislation.

Michigan House Bill 5523, sponsored by Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, would outlaw the practice of employers requiring prospective hires to turn over their passwords to social networking sites as a condition of employment. It also pertains to educational institutions and prospective students.

The bill was approved unanimously by the Michigan House in September and is now sitting on the Michigan Senate floor after being reported from the Energy and Technology Committee last week.

Nesbitt likened the social media passwords to other invasions; a job applicant would never give an employer the key to their post office box and let them go through their mail or bring in all their family photo albums to let the company look through.

"Just because it's technological instead of physical, I believe we should still have some of the protections," he said.

Nesbitt said there are also things people list on their Facebook page—like their age or religious affiliation—that a prospective employer is not allowed to ask the job applicant about during the interview process.

If people have public settings on their information and pictures on social media sites and it is already on the Internet for anyone to freely search, he said, that is not covered by this bill. But information people choose to keep private should stay that way, he said.

A violation by a business or a school of the stipulations laid out in the bill, if it were to become law, would be considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine.

The impetus for the bill, Nesbitt said, came from constituents in his district that had heard about such practices going on in other states and asked him to work to make sure it could not happen in Michigan. He said other states, among them Maryland and Illinois, have been working on similar policies.

Nesbitt said the National Federation of Independent Businesses-Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan support the bill.

"I think that provides a good balance in terms of both protecting our electronic privacy while also ensuring that business are able to, if there was criminal activity ... they are able to respond," he said.

In testimony earlier this year in support of the bill, Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the ACLU Michigan, said that employers requiring private passwords from employees or job applicants constituted a "frightening and illegal invasion of privacy."

"Job applicants and employees should not have to give up their First Amendment rights, as well as risk the security of their private information, by being forced to divulge their passwords to accounts in order to gain or maintain employment," she wrote.

Jim Tobin, co-founder of Raleigh, North Carolina-based Ignite Social Media Inc., said it's sad a law like this needs to exist.

"A healthy employer-and-employee relationship does not start with asking for clearly personal information," Tobin said.

Common sense dictates that asking for such information is a bad idea, he said.

"I don't tell my children my password; I'm certainly not going to give my employer my password," Tobin said.

And such a request puts people sitting in a job interview in a very awkward situation, he said.

"It would take a very strong person to risk their job to say 'no'," Tobin said.

Chris Gautz writes for Crain's Detroit Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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