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Illinois employers can’t ask for Facebook logins, under new law

Updated: August 2, 2012 11:29AM

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new law Wednesday that makes it illegal for employers to ask job applicants or employees for passwords to their Facebook accounts or other online profiles.

Illinois is only the second state to do so. There are no exceptions to the law, not even for jobs requiring background checks.

The law takes effect Jan. 1.

“Privacy is a fundamental right. I believe that, and I think we need to fight for that,” said Quinn, who signed the measure at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where some students complained that online snooping has caused them to lose out on a job or led them to temporarily deactive an online profile.“

But the law 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 email.

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 (D-Chicago).

“Social networking accounts are places where we document the personal and private aspects of our lives,” Ford said, “and employers have realized they can get answers to questions they are prohibited from asking by gaining unfettered access to our accounts. This legislation may protect employers from future lawsuits as much as it protects employees and job-seekers.”

Maryland has a similar law. 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.

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, including Facebook and Twitter. Civil liberties groups, social media users and others have criticized the practice as a serious invasion of privacy, like 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 surfing the net Wednesday at the IIT 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.

Lori Andrews, a professor at IIT’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, said 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,” Andrews said at Wednesday’s event.

Andrews noted 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.

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