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On 1 January, statutes went into effect in California and Illinois that make it illegal for employers to demand that employees or job seekers reveal their social-media passwords as a condition of employment. Four other states already bar the practice; Delaware was the first, back in July, followed by Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey.
The six legislatures took action after Facebook went public last March with news that workers were being ambushed at job interviews or threatened by supervisors. So the underlying reality is that in 44 states employers can still strong-arm workers with the ever more frequent demand: Show us the private parts of your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts or you can’t work here.
Organizations committed to preserving individual privacy had been pinning their hopes for a nationwide fix on a bill submitted to Congress last year that would restrict employers’ ability to force workers to make a choice between dignity a paycheck. According to the U.S. federal government website www.GovTrack.us, the Password Protection Act of 2012 (H.R. 5684), which was introduced on 9 May, was sent to the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee that same day. The bill apparently was then whisked into a witness protection program, because it hasn’t reappeared, and if its provisions ever show up again, it’ll be under a different name.
“I’d be surprised if it isn’t reintroduced at some point,” Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington, D.C., Legislative Office, told IEEE Spectrum. “The bill’s sponsors," he said, "remain committed to dealing with this issue.”
Asked why so many states have yet to enact laws in the mold of those on the books in Delaware, et al., Calabrese explained that many states, whose legislatures operate inside a small window early in the year, are just now entering the first legislative sessions since the issue made news last year. In South Dakota, for example, legislators will remain in session from 8 January only until the end of March. “Six states is actually an amazing response,” says Calabrese. We’re likely to see other states take this up in the next few months.”
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.