Senators Rush To Stop Employers from Requiring Applicants to Turn Over Facebook Passwords

Experts say employers open themselves up for lawsuits when they snoop on applicants' social media sites.

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Facebook has found a few allies in Washington.

Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and New York Sen. Charles Schumer—both Democrats—sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Sunday asking for an investigation into whether employers can legally ask for an applicant's Facebook login information, a practice that has the social media giant on edge. [See the 10 best cities to find a job.]

"Employers have no right to ask job applicants for their house keys or to read their diaries. Why should they be able to ask them for their Facebook passwords and gain unwarranted access to a trove of private information about what we like, what messages we send to people, or who we are friends with?" Schumer said in a statement.

Blumenthal spokesman Nu Wexler says the senator has not received any feedback yet on what the Dept. of Justice or EEOC will do with the request. In the meantime, Wexler says Blumenthal is drafting federal legislation that would regulate what employers could request during a job application process.

The senators' actions come after the Associated Press released the story of Justin Bassett, a statistician who was asked during an application process to provide his private Facebook login information as part of a company's vetting process.

Bothered by the request, the Associated Press reported Bassett rescinded his application, but the story revealed a slew of public and private employers who ask for the information.

Facebook offered a statement Friday condemning the practice, saying that sharing or soliciting private login information is a direct violation of the company's official Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer, added that the company would "take action" to ensure that users' privacy was not violated "whether by engaging policymakers or, where appropriate, by initiating legal action." [Rick Newman: What the Facebook IPO Reveals About the Real Economy]

Carol Miaskoff, Associate Legal Counsel at the EEOC, says applicants are not the only ones who should be wary of letting employers snoop through their social networking profiles. Miaskoff says that employers open themselves up to potential lawsuits by accessing sensitive social networking information.

"If someone were to allege discrimination, and we had evidence that they had the information, it's an exposure ... and employers who [want to] limit their exposure should be aware of that," she says.

Miaskoff explains that the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act both prohibit employers from getting access to disability or genetic information before they make a decision about hiring. Having access to a potential employee's social networking site, increases the likelihood that a disability or genetic disease would be revealed.

While less likely, Miaskoff says applicants who were denied jobs after allowing employers to browse their profiles could also bring age, race and gender discrimination suits.

Miaskoff said the EEOC was unsure what its response to the senators' memo would be, but that the agency was closely following the issue. [See The Best Jobs of 2012.]

The Justice Department declined to comment on what their actions would be.