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Fact checking Facebook password fears

An Associated Press story a couple of weeks ago has mushroomed into a fear that companies all over America are asking for Facebook passwords as they consider job applicants. Now a Washington lawmaker has sponsored a bill to stop the practice.

Is this really happening? The ACLU, two U.S. Senators and State Senator Steve Hobbs think it is.

FBHobbs is proposing a Facebook bill that would make it illegal for any employer or potential employer in the state to request a password to gain access to any social networking site.

“As a society, we are more connected than ever, but that doesn’t mean that employers have a right to read your email or drop by to take a look around your house. There are privacy settings on Facebook for a reason, and demanding access is a major violation of privacy,” Hobbs says in a statement.

The bill also establishes a fine of $500 and attorneys’ fees for violating the law.

Similar measures are being considered at the federal level, as well as in the states of Illinois and Maryland.

I think these are solutions for a problem that is uncommon.

The original AP story, written by a Seattle journalist, cited a single case of an unnamed private company that requested an applicant’s password. The story says Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician, had a woman ask for his Facebook login information during an interview. Beyond that anecdote, all of the examples related to jobs in the field of law enforcement, where more invasive background checks are common.

“My sense is that it happens, but it’s not widespread,” AP reporter Manuel Valdes tells me through Twitter. “It’s more prevalent among public agencies involved in security.”

A seed of a story grows into a bean stalk.

News outlets suggested the practice was becoming increasingly common. “More employers are requiring applicants to submit their Facebook password as part of the application process,” NPR reported . On 97.3 KIRO FM we talked about the ethics of companies asking for passwords, or “shoulder surfing” by having an applicant show the hiring manager his or her Facebook account with the potential boss over their shoulder.

But who’s doing this? People online love to “out” businesses that may be doing something wrong. Yet, no company name has been associated with this practice of prying for passwords.

I turned to almost 30,000 followers on my social media networks, asking if anyone knows of any individual this has happened to, or a company that has requested a Facebook password. Nothing. I’ve also asked Senator Hobbs if he had a constituent complain before sponsoring the legislation. I’m waiting for his response.

He does say the legislation is simple and won’t distract lawmakers from their special session duty of balancing the state budget.

“There isn’t a wrong time to protect privacy and civil liberties,” he says.

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