Illinois School Districts To Require Facebook Passwords From School Bullies

There's no arguing the fact that bullying is something that should be combated, but is that enough to go against the Fifth Amendment and require someone to hand over their password as part of an investigation? That's the reality Illinois schools could soon face, as their government has decided that if asked, a student must hand over access to their social media accounts -- in effect, requiring them to cough up their password.

A requirement like this isn't new, and in fact it's been put into use many times before. Most often, cities or governments will end up banning the practice. Our passwords are ours; it's personal information, and protected under a number of different laws, including the Fifth Amendment (though it's often debated).

We talked about something similar back in November, where Virginia-based law enforcement, prohibited from asking for passwords, could instead force someone to unlock their phone via thumb scanning. The reason this was done was because it went against the Fifth Amendment, so you can see how opinions can wildly vary on how much that bullet-point matters in that part of the constitution.

Bully Flickr Thomas Ricker
Flickr: Thomas Ricker

As usual with security, we're in murky waters here. On one hand, we definitely don't want bullies (and cyberbullies) to exist, but on the other hand, giving up our rights like this would be a huge step in the wrong direction. While cyberbullies in particular hinge on online activity, there are many other ways to tackle an investigation. The reason law enforcement wants passwords is to make their jobs easier, even if it means violating our rights.

Up to this point, no school has had to act on this ruling yet, but that hasn't stopped some from speaking out about how wrong it is. Kade Crockford, director of Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union puts it well in saying, "It's a tragic example of government overreach", and also, "Anytime a school is trying to control students' behavior outside school, it's a serious threat to their privacy and to their futures."

This all goes well beyond nabbing actual bullies. We've seen it many times in the past where law enforcement overextends its reach on things and affects people who are not even guilty of a real crime. It's a scary proposition to think that anyone would have to hand over their password so easily.

Tags:  Privacy, law