ANNAPOLIS — When former correctional officer Robert Collins was asked to turn over his Facebook login information to a superior, he was concerned that his rights were being violated.
It was “an inappropriate invasion of my privacy,” Collins said last week. “I felt as if I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
Concerns about employers accessing private social media information — as well as university officials checking up on college athletes — have prompted Maryland lawmakers to draft several bills that would cut down on the practice, which some consider to be an invasion of privacy.
One Senate bill would restrict employers’ access to employees’ private information. A similar House bill would only apply to state employees.
And separate House and Senate bills would restrict university administrations from checking students’ private communications.
Sen. Ronald N. Young, D-Frederick, said his bill, which applies to all employers, is about protecting civil liberties.
“This practice is stepping on constitutional rights,” Young said. “They don’t have the right to come into your house and listen to your telephone calls or read your mail.”
It amounts to a subtle threat, he said.
“If you apply for a job and they ask you for this information and you’re thinking, ‘If I don’t give it to them, I’m not going to get the job,’ it’s a form of intimidation,” Young said.
Various businesses and groups, including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, T. Rowe Price and the Maryland Retailers Association, oppose the Senate legislation because it does not exempt employer-supplied hardware or Internet services.
“It’s too vague,” said Jeff Zellmer, legislative director for the Maryland Retailers Association.
The ACLU of Maryland supports the bill.
“We think it’s a huge emerging field of law,” said Melissa Goemann, the ACLU’s legislative director for the state. “We are seeing some legislation like this in other states, and with the explosion of social media I think it’s inevitable that this is going to become a really big issue.”
Bradley Shear, a Bethesda-based lawyer who specializes in, among other areas, social media law, said he supports the bill.
“I think it’s a win-win for everyone involved,” Shear said. “It demonstrates that Sen. Young really understands the legal ramifications of this issue.”
He too sees this as a civil liberties issue.
“It’s starting to get really troublesome, these issues. People still have an expectation of privacy, and these bills go a long way in that direction,” Shear said.
Del. Shawn Z. Tarrant, D-Baltimore City, is pushing a bill that would accomplish the same goals as Young’s bill, but would only apply to state employees. And like Young, Tarrant also has a bill that would prohibit the practice of universities requiring some college students, particularly athletes, to give their email or social media usernames and passwords to university staff.
“Students should be able to attend college with a reasonable sense of privacy,” said Tarrant. Information that is publicly posted would not be protected under the bill.
Athletes who play for college teams often fall under stricter scrutiny from coaches and school athletic departments than regular students. Monitoring athletes has become more common in recent years after a highly publicized NCAA investigation revealed a number of improper communications and ethical violations by the University of North Carolina football team in 2012.
Because many of the violations were facilitated through social media, the NCAA changed its policy to recommend, but not require, monitoring of athletes’ social media sites.
No Maryland schools require students to provide universities with account passwords or other private information.
Doug Dull, associate athletics director for the University of Maryland, College Park, said the school does not require athletes to share private information like Facebook passwords with university officials, although each team has its own guidelines for social media monitoring.
Some schools use third-party companies like Varsity Monitor and UDiligence that monitor students’ social media accounts on their behalf.
Sam Carnahan, CEO of Varsity Monitor, said schools often choose to monitor athletes’ profiles as a way to encourage positive behavior and to protect athletes’ reputations.
“We have nothing to do with private information,” like e-mails or personal messages, Carnahan said.
The bills also address concerns of liability, said Shear. If an employer has access to an employee’s social media account, and sees something suspicious but does not report it, they may be liable if that person commits a crime.
“If an employer wants to have access to our private electronic content, then they create a legal duty to police that,” Shear said. “If they see something and don’t report it, they may become liable.”