California: Employers may not ask for Facebook, Email, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Pinterest or other Social Media passwords without justification.

Almost everyone these days has a Facebook account, or at least an email address. How secure is an employee in believing that his or her employer cannot ask for access to these accounts? In California, some privacy protection exists for private employees, but with important caveats.

The newly enacted law prevents an employer from requiring or even requesting an employee or applicant to provide the employer with usernames or passwords. It covers all “social media” which includes email accounts, as well as internet web site profiles like Facebook, videos, photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, plus any other online accounts. In case an employer attempts to find a loophole, the law also prevents the employer from requiring an employee to access an electronic account in the presence of the employer, or from requiring an employee to divulge this information otherwise.

But employees should not feel entirely confident that their social media is private. An employer can still exercise existing rights to request an employee to reveal personal social media “reasonably believed to be relevant to an investigation of allegations of employee misconduct or employee violation of applicable laws and regulations, provided that the social media is used solely for purposes of that investigation or a related proceeding.” In addition to this wobbly exception, relevant social media is also often available for discovery in civil and criminal lawsuits. And finally, an employer may be permitted to ask for the credentials to access employer-issued electronic devices like smart phones. Also, this law does not extend to public employees.

Essentially, this law prevents a private employer from approaching an employee on a whim and asking for their social media or email account information. It is the same approach taken to personal belongings at work – you have a reasonable expectation that your employer won’t go through your purse at work when he or she feels like it, but if you give them a reason to believe that you have stolen workplace property and it is in your purse, they can probably justify a search at that time. The same goes for social media.