by: Manuel Valdes Updated:
SEATTLE - A bill amendment proposed Tuesday could allow employers to ask for a worker's Facebook or other social media password during company investigations.
The provision was proposed for a bill that safeguards social network passwords of workers and job applicants. The measure bars employers from asking for social media credentials during job interviews.
The amendment was introduced at the House Labor Committee at the request of business groups.
The Associated Press reported last year that some employers around the country were asking applicants for their social media information. In 2012 and this year, seven states banned employers from asking job applicants and employees for their social network passwords, with some exceptions.
Another 33 states are considering similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Proponents say that the original bill would open an avenue for possible illegal activity by employees, such as divulging proprietary or consumer information to outsiders through social networks.
The amendment says that an employer conducting an investigation may require or demand access to a personal account if an employee or prospective employee has allegations of work-place misconduct or giving away an employer's proprietary information. The amendment would require an investigation to ensure compliance with applicable laws or regulatory requirements.
Under the amendment, employees would be present when their social network profiles are searched and whatever information found is kept confidential, unless it is relevant to a criminal investigation.
"Rather than just referring everything to law enforcement, we have the opportunity to work with the employee and to investigate," said Denny Eliason, who is representing the banking industry.
He said his clients have had cases where employees transferred sensitive information via email. He was not sure if Facebook or other social networks have been used.
Pam Greenberg of the National Conference of State Legislatures says similar bills being considered around the country have similar provisions allowing for disclosure of passwords during investigations.
California's law allows "requests" of passwords during investigations. But Washington amendment goes beyond that, said Dave Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based online privacy advocacy group.
This amendment "says they have a right to enter your digital home," Maass said. "It's astounding that they would try to codify this and that all employers could do this... the national trend is to move away from this. It's shocking that the amendment is going in the right opposite direction."
Maass said it's not only an employee's privacy that is violated, but also those he has connections with in a social network site.
The amendment "would turn this bill into a privacy bill into an employer fishing expedition," said Shankar Narayan of the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "That's the not the bill we signed up for."
The bill's sponsor, Democrat Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens, said Tuesday that he had not read the amendment, but he was aware of concerns from high-tech industries.
University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo, who studies emerging technologies, said companies have federal, state and common laws that protect proprietary information.
"At first blush, it looks pretty common sense. If you're trying to investigate what happened and you suspect one of your employees, it seems like common sense you should be able to do this, however, there are legal mechanisms," he said.
Cole said the amendment has broad language, such as "work-related misconduct."
"It's up to the employer to define what that constitutes," he said.
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