January 18

OUR OPINION:

Personal email, social media posts should be private

Communication technology has expanded so rapidly in recent years that people are having trouble keeping up. We don’t only talk on the phone, we send text messages and emails, and post and send messages on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

And while phone calls and text messages are assumed private without a second thought, communications such as Facebook posts still fall into a gray area in people’s perceptions. As a result, they are sometimes treated differently.

L.D. 1194, now being considered by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, would help change that. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike McClellan, R-Raymond, on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, would prohibit employers and school administrators from requesting blanket access to the personal email and social media passwords of current and prospective employees and students.

It is part of a state-by-state effort to update laws to reflect the new realities of communication. So far, more than a dozen states have passed the new protections.

In requesting access to these passwords, institutions are putting underlings in a difficult position, in which they have to turn over their private communications or risk alienating people who hold considerable power over them.

It isn’t clear how often this happens, but it is clear that these communications, just as other, more traditional methods, should be assumed private.

The bill was held over from last session because of concerns it could impede school investigations into student matters such as bullying, or prohibit employers from complying with laws governing industries, such as the financial sector, that are obligated to track employee communications.

The latest version of the bill addresses those concerns. Schools would be able to access social media accounts following a specific incident of misconduct and after receiving permission from a student’s parents. Employers also would be able to investigate specific claims, and the bill provides exemptions for employers who have to meet legal or regulatory requirements.

To be clear, the bill applies only to personal accounts. School- and employer-supplied email and social media accounts remain the property of the institutions. And employers and school administrators still can monitor public social media posts, as no special access is needed to see them.

But personal emails sent between personal accounts should stay private. Same for Twitter and Facebook posts or messages that are sent using the privacy settings those platforms make available.

Those messages, posts and emails are no different than personal phone calls. They should be afforded the same protections.

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