Job seekers already feel like they are under a microscope—prospective employers might be examining the way they write, sit, speak, and dress. But now, some employers are increasing the magnification, seeking to look beyond work histories and career trajectories to get glimpses of job candidates' personal lives.
A stunning trend has seen employers, not satisfied with the portraits of job candidates provided by interviews and publicly available social networking profiles, boldly asking prospective employees to reveal the passwords to these sites so that interviewers can explore sections that would otherwise be inaccessible. Some job seekers, desperate for employment and fearing that they would no longer be considered for the positions for which they’ve applied, have reluctantly acquiesced.
But there has been a huge outcry from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has asked the U.S. Congress to enact a federal law that would bar employers from making such requests. “We need a bright line rule—if it’s behind a password, that means keep out, whether you’re an employer, a school or the government,” the ACLU said in a statement attached to an online petition on its website that urges the U.S. Congress to act. The efforts of the ACLU and other privacy advocates led to the introduction, on 27 April, of the Social Networking Online Protection Act (SNOPA). SNOPA would bar employers from: demanding that prospective or current employees reveal passwords; asking workers to type passwords in so an employer can gain momentary access; or pressuring employees into “friending,” so that the employer gains more extensive access to the employee’s private postings.
Some states such as Maryland and New York have already reacted to the situation by enacting similar statutes. On 2 May, Maryland became the first state to ban employers from asking for social media passwords. But a federal law would prevent a legal patchwork where some employees and job candidates maintain a right to privacy while others are effectively stripped of it.
Willie Jones is an associate editor at IEEE Spectrum. In addition to editing and planning daily coverage, he manages several of Spectrum's newsletters and contributes regularly to the monthly Big Picture section that appears in the print edition.