Legislation that would give workers broad protection from the prying eyes of employers was introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday. Both bills would make it illegal for employers to force workers or candidates to divulge social media passwords, similar to legislation nicknamed SNOPA, which was introduced last month. But the new Password Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.. goes even further, extending such limitations to smart phones, private email accounts, photo sharing sites and any personal information that resides on computers owned by the workers.
But Blumenthal's proposal -- and its companion in the House, introduced by Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. -- is narrower in some ways than the Social Networking Online Protection Act(SNOPA) introduced April 27 by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N. Y. SNOPA extended similar protections to elementary, high school and college students. Under the Password Protection Act, students would not be protected.
Still, Blumenthal's legislation is "a good start," said Chris Calabrese, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We feel like it's a very flexible standard. It extends to your iPhone, to information you have on Google and anything else that may come up in the future that we haven't thought of yet. “
Still, Calabrese said his organization will work to include students before any proposal reaches a vote in Congress.
"Students are clearly the target of a lot of social media monitoring," he said. "We think students should have the same rights as everyone else. We'd like to see the best of both of these pieces of legislation combined."
Blumenthal, who has been publicly critical of firms that have requested employee Facebook passwords, said legislation is needed to protect workers.
“Employers seeking access to passwords or confidential information on social networks, email accounts or other protected Internet services is an unreasonable and intolerable invasion of privacy,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “With few exceptions, employers do not have the need or the right to demand access to applicants’ private, password-protected information. This legislation, which I am proud to introduce, ensures that employees and job seekers are free from these invasive and intrusive practices.”
Bradley Shear, a Maryland lawyer and activist who has helped draw attention to the issue, said he "applauded" the efforts of legislators who introduced the Password Protection Act, but was also concerned that students not be left behind as the legislation works its way through committee.
"Hopefully all the different interested parties will come together to find a solution that covers everyone," he said. "This is something that won't go away unless it's handled now."
The Facebook password issue has been bubbling up for years — in 2009, a Maryland state employee complained that he was required to provide his Facebook password during a job interview. But the subject has gained much more attention in recent weeks, after several news reports, including an msnbc.com investigation.