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Giving employers an ‘out’ to demand your online passwords

Senate Bill 5211 was written following news reports about employers asking for employee Facebook passwords. Those stories have since proven to be based more on anecdotal rather than factual information. (AP Photo/File)

Senate Bill 5211 allowing bosses to ask for a worker’s password for social media accounts during a company’s investigations has been withdrawn.

One closely watched bill that’s been working its way through the legislature would make it illegal for an employer to ask for your social networking passwords during a job interview or as a condition for you to keep your job.

In committee Tuesday, it appeared as if the bill would have done a complete 180 and actually legitimize an employer’s demand for personal passwords.

When Senate Bill 5211 was opened up for a public hearing several members of the business community raised concerns, including Patrick Connor with the National Federation of Independent Business.

Connor said employees often manage the online accounts of their employing company. In that case, it would make sense to allow a manager access to the password.

Other concerns were raised by Michael Shaw with the Washington State Bar Association. He said if the bill passed, it would need to include several exemptions like where there might be trade secret violations and investigations of employee misconduct.

“The real thorny part is where you have these shared accounts. You actually might hire someone for their existing following and use their connections for your business. At what point does that fall into this bill?” Shaw testified.

A representative with the securities and financial industry told the committee there are federal requirements that they look at and regulate their employees online activities to make sure they’re not compromising private financial information.

On Tuesday, an amendment to SB 5211 was introduced that would allow employers to demand the online social media passwords of employees if they have specific information that leads them to conduct an investigation.

State Representative Timm Ormsby of Spokane asked the committee staff to clarify what constituted specific information. He was told there is no minimum standard for reasonable suspicion as the amendment is currently written.

The amendment wasn’t added to the bill, as it moved out of committee on Wednesday. State Representative Mike Sells says after introducing the amendment, “the standard around when the company could go in and look at that just wasn’t tight enough thing for both republicans and democrats.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, seven states banned employers from asking job applicants and workers for their social network passwords in 2012. Another 33 states are considering similar laws this year.

Read more:
Are we on a Facebook privacy witch hunt?

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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