Can Legislation Preventing Employers From Requesting Facebook Passwords Really Protect Privacy?

Should employers be allowed to request Facebook passwords?

Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Hillicon Valley, Brendan Sasso reports that Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., is preparing to introduce a bill that would block bosses from asking employees (and applicants) for their Facebook passwords. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has been working on similar legislation since last week.

This is the latest development in the contentious Facebook password debate, which began with an Associated Press report about job seekers being asked to hand over their Facebook login info as part of the application process. On Friday, Facebook announced that asking for a user’s password violates its terms of service; Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan wrote, “We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action, including by shutting down applications that abuse their privileges.”

Egan must be pleased with McHenry and Blumenthal’s work. It’s hard to imagine that many members of Congress would vote against the bill, pending any sneaky or poorly thought-out provisions.

But it will be interesting to see exactly what behavior McHenry and Blumenthal will attempt to restrict. Merely making it illegal for organizations to ask for login would not really solve the problem. There are many other ways for prospective employees’ privacy to be invaded. The AP report notes that Sears uses a third-party app to look at the applicants’ Facebook info, minus wall postings, though it requires the applicant’s approval. Particularly in this economy, applicants desperate for jobs may also feel pressure to accept friend requests from their interviewers. This behavior is more difficult to legislate but nearly as pernicious and invasive.

Employers must be nostalgic for the days when people took online privacy less seriously. As Alexis Madrigal notes in the Atlantic’s Technology section today, research shows that “Facebook users have dramatically altered their behavior in recent years to make their profiles less public.”