Schools, Employers Increasingly Demand Personal Passwords

Published October 1, 2009

Social networking sites such as Facebook are creating new privacy concerns in schools and businesses as employers and administrators increasingly demand their employees’ and students’ passwords.

In Mississippi a student is suing her high school after a cheerleading coach forced her to surrender her Facebook password. The coach then allegedly logged into the student’s account and read her personal messages.

The school then publicly reprimanded and punished the student for the content of her Facebook messages, the suit alleges.

Seen as Typical Overreach

Bruce Abramson, an intellectual property expert and president of California-based tech firm Informationism, Inc., says the alleged invasion of privacy in the Mississippi lawsuit illustrates a larger problem with the way schools are governed.

“Quite frankly, I think this is totally egregious, that schools should be able to force anyone to divulge password information for any private account,” Abramson said. “But that doesn’t mean it is illegal, and it’s probably a matter of Mississippi state law.

“None of what we do in terms of supposedly protecting our children online makes any sense anyway,” Abramson added. “This can be seen in the prosecution and conviction of teens for ‘sexting’ [sending intimate photos of themselves to others]. It’s ridiculous. These kids will be on sex offender lists for the rest of their lives.”

Passwords Required for Jobs

In Bozeman, Montana, applicants for city jobs were required to divulge their login and password info for social networking sites. In New Jersey, two restaurant employees were fired after a manager obtained the password to a MySpace group two employees created so fellow workers could vent about their bosses.

Steven Titch, a technology policy analyst at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, says lawmakers should step in to stop such violations of privacy.

“Passwords are so important that no one—student or job applicant—should ever be coerced to give out a password,” Titch said. “And if anyone tries to coerce someone to give up their password, they should be arrested.

“There should be legislation against it, because this is the equivalent of coming into one’s home, unlocking a drawer, and looking at private papers,” Titch added. “This is outrageous.”

Useful to Criminals

Titch says he thinks the trend won’t end until a city or state is sued for such practices and forced to defend its position in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. Until then, many citizens will be in danger of becoming victims of widespread identity theft.

“Somebody’s password is an incredibly marketable thing in the underworld,” Titch said. “If you have someone’s password for one thing, you likely have their password for other areas of their life as well. This sort of thing shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.