House Bill Aims to Keep Passwords Private


Employers looking to snoop on job applicants’ social media habits could face hefty fines if a new bill becomes law.

The Social Networking Online Protection Act, or SNOPA, introduced in the House on Friday, aims to “prohibit current or potential employers from requiring a username, password or other access to online content,” the bill’s author Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., says on his website.

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Violators who try to discipline, discriminate against or deny employment to any individual for refusing to hand over the information would have to pay a $10,000 fine.

And the same restrictions would apply to schools, from kindergarten up to colleges and universities.

“The American people deserve the right to keep their personal accounts private,” SNOPA co-sponsor Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said in a statement. “No one should have to worry that their personal account information, including passwords, can be required by an employer or educational institution, and if this legislation is signed into law, no one will face that possibility.”

The proposal comes about a month after Maryland became the first state to pass a bill banning employers from demanding login information – it’s now awaiting the governor’s signature. Similar bills reportedly have been introduced in California and Illinois, among other states.

This isn’t the first time login information requests have come up on federal level. In March, the House shot down an amendment that would have allowed the FCC to regulate the issue. And that same month, Senators Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. urged the Justice Department to look into whether the practice violates current federal law.

But figuring that out may not be so easy.

“Current law is murky,” Attorney Clinton David tells Fox “Federal law does allow employers to use Twitter and Facebook for background checks if the site is publicly accessible, if the employer does not use the information obtained for discrimination purposes, and if the employer does not use an alias to obtain this information.”

On the other hand, David says, “requiring passwords does violate terms of service for Facebook, and entering a social networking site in violation of their terms of service is a federal crime, although it appears as though the Department of Justice has indicated it would not prosecute these crimes.”

Figuring out how SNOPA will be received in Congress also may not be so easy.

While regulating employer password demands has garnered plenty of opposition on the web from critics who say the government has no business telling private companies how to screen applicants, CQ Roll Call Executive Briefing Technology Editor Gautham Nagesh says it remains unclear what kind of opposition it will face on the Hill.

“Several Democrats in the House and Senate have expressed support for such legislation…the GOP hasn't been as vocal on the whole issue, but they haven't indicated they are against banning employers from demanding Facebook and other passwords,” he told

Still, even without new legislation, David says employers and schools should tread carefully here.

“This could put the potential employer in the direct crosshairs of a discrimination lawsuit if an  applicant’s Facebook page discloses ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, religious or possible medical conditions, which could not otherwise be considered in the employment process,” he said. “I believe from an employer’s standpoint the risk/reward ratio is just not worth it.”

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