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Policymakers take aim at Facebook password coercion

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Facebook have already denounced the practice of employers demanding access to job applicants’ Facebook passwords.

Now policymakers are mobilizing into action themselves. Both state and national legislators are introducing bills to make this process illegal.

It’s worth noting that the last time U.S. policymakers were faced with an online privacy infringement issue, with Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Internet-stumped representatives wanted to “bring in the nerds.”

Unless policymakers have wised up to the subtleties of Internet privacy in just a few months, it seems that Facebook is behind this new knowledge and concern. After being made aware of the practice last week, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan vowed to fight back by reaching out to legislators.

“We’ll take action to protect the privacy and security of our users, whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action,” Egan wrote.

Perhaps Facebook has made a difference. Gone are the SOPA-stumped legislators. Now, policymakers are not only aware of the nuances of this latest online privacy concern but ready to act to remove it.

In 2011, Facebook spent more than $1 million dollars on lobbying efforts that especially targeted international regulation of software companies and restrictions on Internet access by foreign governments. It makes sense that the company is keeping policymakers well informed.

At least three senators have either threatened to or already introduced legislation against employers who request Facebook passwords.

In California, Senator Leeland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) tweeted that he’s introducing a bill in the state to prevent the practice.

Two more senators have brought their concerns to the Attorney General. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have asked Eric Holder to investigate claims that would confirm the practice is happening and then to determine whether the claims would violate the Stored Communications Act (SCA) or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Both acts were passed in 1986, but may still protect users’ digital information in this modern instance.

Regardless of the outcome, Blumenthal said he was already drafting a bill to prohibit similar requests.

All three senators sprang into action after Facebook’s battle cry, but they’re not the only policymakers who have been concerned with the case. Both Illinois and Maryland legislators have introduced similar bills.

So far, only one employer has been identified as to have been engaging in this password-requesting practice. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is named in the ACLU’s civil rights case in defense of a Maryland corrections officer who was made to turn in his password. The agency has temporarily suspended the practice.

Even though the practice may not be as widespread as this new legislation is making it out to be, Facebook has an incentive to defend its users—that is, when the company threatening to compromise user privacy isn’t Facebook itself.

Photo of Senator Blumenthal via Talk Radio News Service