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Is it even legal?


Written by Mark Nichols

After countless incidents where police officers’ social media postings have reflected negatively on the agencies they work for, it’s become commonplace for employers to ask for Facebook passwords as a condition of employment. It turns out that this may be illegal.

According to a recent article in the Fredericksburg Patch, the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office has stopped asking officers for their passwords based on a request from two U.S. Senators for an investigation of whether it is legal to obtain access to private social network accounts as a condition of employment.

Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office spokesman Mike Harvey provided the following statement:

“Background investigations for law enforcement personnel have always been much more intense and thorough than most background screenings done in the private sector for potential employees; and even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has declared it permissible for independent background screeners to search online and social media resources for background information, the recent request by members of the United States Senate for an investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) into whether or not it is legal or Constitutional for any employer, law enforcement or otherwise, to access applicant Facebook accounts, the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office is suspending the practice of requesting applicants to allow screeners to view Facebook and other social media site indefinitely, effective immediately.”

The issue of employers asking employees for online passwords has gotten a lot of media attention recently and several articles have used the Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Office as an example.

Sheriff’s spokesman Harvey had said earlier that detectives check social networks of prospective employees to check for derogatory statements.

In addition, the sheriff’s office was asking potential employees to “friend” background investigators who would look for red flags in the content of their accounts.

Harvey says that in the past investigators would talk with friends and neighbors to gather information on employees, but social media sites seemed to provide more information.

Virginia State Police followed a similar practice but it’s unclear if that agency plans to suspend the social network reviews.

Facebook released a statement recently that said employers who require prospective employees to provide access to their private accounts could face discrimination lawsuits.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., requested the investigation to determine if these practices violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Both lawmakers are also asked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if these practices could be used to discriminate against qualified prospective employees.

“The Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office will reassess the use of Facebook in employee background screenings after the EEOC, DOJ and Congress have reviewed this matter,” Harvey told reporters.

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