Dem lawmakers move to protect employee Internet passwords

A group of Senate and House Democrats introduced legislation on Wednesday to prevent bosses from forcing a job applicant or employee to reveal the password to any private online information, such as a Facebook or email account.

The Password Protection Act would make it illegal for an employer to coerce access to any private data stored on the Internet or to punish people who refuse to provide access to their accounts.

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The bill was introduced by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.). Reps. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) plan to introduce an identical bill in the House.

At a press conference, Blumenthal called the practice of forcing people to reveal their passwords "absolutely repugnant and reprehensible."

"This trend really goes against the fundamental values of privacy that are so deeply engrained in our way of life and our Constitution," he said. 

Employers who violate the law would be subject to a $10,000 fine. 

The bill would not protect employees who work with children under the age of 13 or who have access to secret national security information.

Outrage first erupted after The Associated Press reported earlier this year that some bosses have demanded that job applicants provide passwords to their private Facebook accounts to check for embarrassing or damaging information.

The passwords give employers access to the users’ private messages, photos and the profiles of their friends.

Blumenthal said access to a person's Facebook or email account violates not only their own privacy, but also the privacy of any friends or family members who have contacted them.

Blumenthal said the practice puts people at risk of accidentally revealing private financial information or other confidential data. He also argued it could lead to illegal discrimination on the basis of categories such as marital status or pregnancy.

Klobuchar said it is fine for employers to search the Web for publicly available information on potential employees, including their public Facebook profiles. But she said it is unacceptable to demand access to private information.

"If they know it's going to be public, that is one thing. It is one thing for an employer to search the Web. It's another thing to be requiring passwords and to get in behind, basically, the lock and get information that is supposed to be private," Klobuchar said.

She noted that a number of states are considering proposals to ban the practice, but she it would be "best to get this done on the federal level."

Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel (N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) introduced their own bill last month to protect social networking passwords. 

Blumenthal said Engel's bill is different because it focuses on social networking accounts, whereas the Password Protection Act protects access to the servers that store the personal data.

He said his bill relies on existing anti-hacking laws and would protect any private data storage.

"This approach is slightly different. It might seem technical on its face, but I think there's common ground here," Blumenthal said.

He said he has talked with Engel, and he expects there will eventually be one common bill.

Heinrich said the lawmakers designed the Password Protect Act to be "nimble and responsive to a changing technological landscape." 

Engel's bill would also bar colleges and universities from asking for student's passwords.

Blumenthal said he would be open to incorporating a similar protection into his bill.

He said he worked closely with Web companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to draft the legislation. He said he is not aware of any business groups that oppose the bill.

The original AP story that sparked the uproar over employers demanding access to Facebook accounts cited only isolated incidents.

Blumenthal said he is unaware of any national statistics on the issue but that he has heard from constituents who have been required to reveal their passwords.

He said he has heard fewer complaints in the last few months after the issue gained greater attention.