New Illinois law bans employers from requesting Facebook, Twitter passwords

Privacy expert likes the new law but says issue is overblown

August 1, 2012

Quinn Ford

(Flickr/Birgerking)
A new law bans employers from asking for passwords to social networking sites, but experts say the problem is exaggerated.

Illinois job seekers can now breathe a little easier about keeping their Facebook and Twitter pages private.

Governor Pat Quinn signed a bill today making it illegal for hiring managers to ask employees or potential employees for their passwords to social networking sites.

Illinois State Sen. Christine Radogno sponsored the bill. She said most young people can relate to the issue.

“I know I got a lot of likes on my Facebook page when we talked about this bill,” Radogno said.

Radogno added the law does not include any exemptions for “sensitive” jobs such as those in law enforcement. She said the purpose of the law was to provide a basic level of privacy for job seekers.

“This is really designed for the average person who’s looking for a job who may have social things out there that should not be used against them any more than someone coming into their house and searching through their closets,” Radogno said.

Under the new law, employers are banned from requesting passwords
but not usernames or any other information in “the public domain.” State Rep. La Shawn Ford, who sponsored the bill in the house, said first-time offenders can face fines from $100 to $300.

William McGeveran, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in information law and data privacy, said employers asking employees for their passwords doesn’t happen nearly as often as people think.

McGeveran said the perception that the practice is widespread seems to have been created by news stories on the subject, that were then passed around on Facebook.

“There’s not an epidemic of employers asking for passwords as best as anyone can tell,” McGeveran said. “It’s not one of the most severe privacy threats that people face when they’re applying for employment or when they’re interacting with their boss.”

McGeveran said there is already plenty of information out there that employers can, and do, look at when hiring someone, but he said there are already good legal reasons why an employer wouldn’t ask for someone’s password.

“You could get into real trouble under existing employment discrimination law. For example, if you stumbled across someone’s pregnancy or disability,” McGeveran said. “I think most human resource professionals already shy away from doing that kind of snooping.”

But McGeveran added the law isn’t a bad thing.

“I think people rightly pointed out your Facebook password is, like your wallet or the keys to your house, just not something your employer has any right to,” McGeveran said.

Illinois has become the second state behind Maryland to pass such a law.