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Does Anything Stop Your Bosses from Reading Your Emails If They Really Want to?

Nevada is the 11th state to enact password protection legislation designed to ensure online privacy for workers.
 
 
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Photo Credit: flickr: Bernard Goldbach

 

Victories for privacy rights have been few and far between since 9/11, but an astonishing exception is the blossoming of state laws offering protection for workers against bosses who want to snoop into their social media lives. Last month, Nevada became the 11th state to enact password protection legislation designed to ensure some online privacy for workers. Similar laws are under consideration in about 20 other states.

According to the ACLU’s Allie Bohm, who tracks privacy issues at the group’s New York headquarters, reports of employers requiring workers to disclose the passwords for private social media accounts quickly caught the attention of legislators. Because of Facebook’s broad popularity, lawmakers immediately grasped the threat to individual privacy in allowing employers unrestricted access to the social media lives of their employees.

“If your boss were to demand to read the snail mail that’s delivered to your home by the Postal Service, you would be outraged and consider it a gross violation of your privacy. Well, demanding access to the password to your Facebook account is the same thing,” and even lawmakers not normally sympathetic to civil liberties issues can see the problem, Bohm said. “The fact that the National Security Agency is sweeping up vast quantities of info from the net doesn’t mean that state legislators believe that employers have the same right.”

The issue first burst into public view in 2011 with the case of Robert Collins, a Baltimore man then employed by the state of Maryland. Collins was being interviewed for a transfer to a job in the Department of Corrections and was “stunned” to be asked “illegal and invasive” questions about his social media use, he later testified to the Maryland House of Delegates. Fearful of being denied the transfer, he reluctantly complied with the demand that he provide his Facebook password. On the spot, the interviewer logged on to Collins’ account and began rummaging through the contents. The corrections department just wanted to insure that he was not a gang member, he was told.

Furious at this treatment, Collins brought his complaint to his union, the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and to the Maryland ACLU. Both organizations are well connected in the state capital in Annapolis and it wasn’t long before the nation’s first worker password protection legislation was introduced. Supporters easily brushed aside opposition from the state Chamber of Commerce and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed the measure into law on May 2, 2012.

“I was ecstatic,” when the bill became law, Collins told AlterNet. “Maryland chose to err on the side of citizens and privacy rights. You don’t see that very often,” he said. He added he has been excited to see other states take up the issue. Laws based in some measure on the Maryland model have been enacted by Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

A New Jersey state legislature approved similar bill early this year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie’s objections, however, appear limited to handful of relatively uncontroversial points, and he has signaled his willingness to approve a basic worker protection bill once the legislature has agreed to some changes to the statutory language.

ACLU’s Bohm indicated that these state-level victories may represent the “low hanging fruit” for privacy proponents, and that additional state or federal laws favoring workers may be harder to come by. She cited the recent of example of Texas, where a good password protection law made rapid progress early this year. The bill stalled, however, as unfriendly legislators began loading it up with exceptions and language designed to protect to employers, not workers. The bill become so heavily laden with pro-business language that its original sponsors were happy to see it die when the legislature ended its session without a vote early this month.

 
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