A report this week that some employers are asking job applicants for their Facebook log-ins has understandably left many observers angry. Even asking for that information so obviously crosses the line that it's hard to imagine that companies feel free to make the request.
Now that it's emerged that at least a few employers -- no one really knows how many -- are seeking that kind of information, talk of regulation and litigation is growing louder.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told Politico he's drafting a privacy bill that would make it illegal for companies to ask job applicants for passwords to social media sites.
Today, Facebook's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, made clear that the company disapproves of the practice. "As a user, you shouldn’t be forced to share your private information and communications just to get a job. And as the friend of a user, you shouldn’t have to worry that your private information or communications will be revealed to someone you don’t know and didn’t intend to share with just because that user is looking for a job," she writes.
She also says that sharing or soliciting a Facebook password violates the company's terms -- though it's not clear how Facebook would enforce those terms against an employer that doesn't have a profile and, therefore, has never agreed to them.
Egan adds that the company will "take action to protect the privacy and security of our users." She adds that this could take the form of "engaging policymakers," or initiating legal action, including by "shutting down applications that abuse their privileges."
Regardless of whether Facebook will really take legal action here, employers run real risks by asking applicants for that kind of data. Most significantly, companies that ask to see users' private information expose themselves to allegations that they violate civil rights laws.
Employers aren't supposed to make hiring decisions based on factors like whether applicants are married, or belong to particular religious groups, or suffer from medical conditions. Employers aren't even supposed to ask questions aimed at eliciting that information. Companies that attempt to do an end-run around those restrictions by asking for people's social media passwords might well find themselves hauled into court to defend a discrimination lawsuit.