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The state Senate passed a bill unanimously Thursday to prohibit employers from asking workers and job applicants for their social media passwords so their private messages, Facebook status updates and online photos can be reviewed.

The bill would protect employees or applicants from being penalized for refusing to disclose the information. The bill, which was approved in a 44-0 vote in the Senate, is pending action in the House.

The issue arose after a correctional supply officer, Robert Collins, returned to work at the Patuxent Institution after taking a leave of absence following the death of his mother in 2009. As a condition of his return, he was required to undergo a background investigation as part of the recertification.

“He then proceeded to ask me which social media sites I was a member of,” Collins told the House Economic Matters Committee recently. “I told him that I only had a Facebook page. He then said, ‘What is the password?’ I said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ He said, ‘I am serious as a heart attack.’”

Collins said he reluctantly gave his password, and the investigator began to read through his private messages and postings.

Collins contacted his union and the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports the bill.

Social media sites such as Facebook allow information to be shared either to select family and friends or to the general public. Collins said he felt his privacy was violated similarly to if his locked home had been entered and searched.

“You look through your peephole and only allow in the people whom you choose,” Collins said. “When you send postal mail you do so with the confidence that it is a federal offense for any person other than the addressee to open it, and you assume you will be afforded a certain level of confidentiality.”

Steven L. Johnson, an assistant professor in the Management and Information Systems Department at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, agreed.

Unless the person is a public figure, such as a newscaster whose Facebook and Twitter feed is tied to their work, there is no legitimate reason for an employer to demand access to a worker’s social media account, said Johnson, who teaches social media uses for businesses.

“That’s like an employer saying, ‘We need to be able to inspect your home on a regular basis.’ We’d all be appalled if an employer said, ‘We want to visit your home everyone just because we want to.’”

Employers also have a legitimate interest in what their employees post about their workplace, but many companies are beginning to address that through social media policies for workers, Johnson said.

“It’s important for gray areas to be defined,” Johnson said.