In 2012, the media erupted with news about employers demanding employees provide them with their social media passwords so the employers could access their accounts. This news took many people by surprise, and it set off a firestorm of public outrage. It even sparked a significant legislative response in the states.
I thought that the practice of demanding passwords was so outrageous that it couldn’t be very common. What kind of company or organization would actually do this? I thought it was a fringe practice done by a few small companies without much awareness of privacy law.
But Bradley Shear, an attorney who has focused extensively on the issue, opened my eyes to the fact that the practice is much more prevalent than I had imagined, and it is an issue that has very important implications as we move more of our personal data to the Cloud.
The Widespread Hunger for Access
Employers are not the only ones demanding social media passwords – schools are doing so too, especially athletic departments in higher education, many of which engage in extensive monitoring of the online activities of student athletes. Some require students to turn over passwords, install special software and apps, or friend coaches on Facebook and other sites. According to an article in USA Today: “As a condition of participating in sports, the schools require athletes to agree to monitoring software being placed on their social media accounts. This software emails alerts to coaches whenever athletes use a word that could embarrass the student, the university or tarnish their images on services such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and MySpace.”
Not only are colleges and universities engaging in the practice, but K-12 schools are doing so as well. A MSNBC article discusses the case of a parent’s outrage over school officials demanding access to a 13-year old girl’s Facebook account. According to the mother, “The whole family is exposed in this. . . . Some families communicate through Facebook. What if her aunt was going through a divorce or had an illness? And now there’s these anonymous people reading through this information.”
In addition to private sector employers and schools, public sector employers such as state government agencies are demanding access to online accounts. According to another MSNBC article: “In Maryland, job seekers applying to the state’s Department of Corrections have been asked during interviews to log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall.”