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WA Lawmakers Debate Employee Privacy in Digital Age

March 26, 2013

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Today in Olympia, one topic is workers' privacy in social media. A House committee looks at a bill that would allow employers to be sued and fined for requiring a worker, or prospective employee, to hand over passwords for online accounts as a condition of employment.

Widespread use of social media has blurred the lines between personal privacy and employers' concerns about release of company secrets or unflattering product reviews. And according to attorney Jesse Wing, with the Seattle law firm MacDonald, Hoague and Bayless, it's important to set limits for how far employers can go to scope out their work force.

"For example, you can find out a person's age, whether they have disabilities, what their religion is, their sexual orientation," says Wing. "All this information might be on a person's social media site that they would never provide willingly, or an employer would know they're not allowed to find out."

Wing adds that workplace legal challenges have arisen, based not just on information that is posted online, but on issues such as who owns the social media account and content after an employee leaves a company. Overall, he cautions people to take responsibility for keeping their work life and personal life separate, online.

"Setting the privacy settings is also a message of how important you think your privacy is," he states. "And if you don't set them very high, that may be held against you if you were ever involved in a court battle: that you didn't think this information was all that private."

Wing says all the caveats that started years ago with email are just as important on Facebook, Twitter and other social media: Before posting anything you might be embarrassed by in the future, think it over; and also consider the third-party privacy rights of people you interact with online, whose information, meant for you, might be seen by others.

The legislation would set a $500 civil penalty for employers who make demands found to violate workers' privacy, though employers could still search for any information in the public domain. The bill started in the Senate, where it passed unanimously earlier this month.

The hearing is today (Tues.) at 10 a.m. in the House Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, John L. O'Brien Bldg., Room 226A, Olympia.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA