CHICAGO – Seeking to guard the privacy rights of the social networking generation, Illinois is making it illegal for employers to ask job applicants for passwords to their online profiles.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law Wednesday at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where several students lamented that online snooping by bosses has caused some to lose out on jobs and forced others to temporarily deactivate their online profiles.
Illinois is only the second state to have such a law on the books, and it leaves no exceptions -- even for openings that require thorough background checks.
In their efforts to vet job applicants, some companies and government agencies have started asking for passwords to log in to a prospective employee's accounts on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. Civil liberties groups, social media users and others have criticized the practice as a serious invasion of privacy, likening it to handing over the keys to your house.
"Especially in times like this when there are not a lot of jobs, that puts a lot of pressure on you. It's hard to resist," said Pegah Shabehpour, a 22-year-old architecture student browsing the Internet at the ITT campus library.
"I've heard of some friends deactivating their accounts when they are applying for jobs and once they get a job, reactivating them," she said, though she's never been asked for her passwords.
The governor said it was important to ensure privacy laws keep pace with technology.
"We're dealing with 21st-century issues," Quinn said. "... Privacy is a fundamental right. I believe that and I think we need to fight for that."
The law protects both current employees and prospective hires. But the legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1, does not stop bosses from viewing information that isn't restricted by privacy settings on a website. Employers are also free to set workplace policies on the use of the Internet, social networking sites and e-mail.
Penalties in any successful civil suit would start at between $100 and $300 and could end up costing employers more, said bill sponsor Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat.
Maryland currently has a similar law, and several other states are considering bans, including Washington, Delaware and New Jersey. Two U.S. senators have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review whether such password requests from employers are legal.
Lori Andrews, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law, said some research has shown that 75 percent of employers require their human resources departments to look at online profiles before offering an applicant a job, and that a third of employers have turned down applicants based on those searches.
"Some of this is very improper," she said at Wednesday's event.
It is especially problematic because it opens the door to discrimination, Andrews said, noting that online profiles can contain information about a person's religious beliefs, political affiliations and sexual preference.
Chemical engineering student Kimberly Douglas, 19, said she had heard of employers rejecting applicants who refused to grant access to their online profiles on the assumption that they must be hiding something.
Not only is it unfair, she said, but she also wondered what you can learn about a person's job performance from poking around their photos and online presence.
"You post things about music, quotes, stuff you like, but it's not really who you are," she said.