Companies in the U.S. are increasingly asking prospective employees for their Facebook username and passwords as part of the vetting process.
Justin Bassett, a New York City statistician, had just finished answering a few character questions for a consultancy job at a lobbying firm, when the interviewer turned to her computer to search for his Facebook page. But she could not see his private profile. She turned back and asked him to hand over his login information.
Mr Bassett refused and withdrew his application, saying he did not want to work for a company that would seek such personal information. But as the job market steadily improves, other job candidates are confronting the same question from prospective employers, and some of them cannot afford to say no.
In their efforts to vet applicants, some companies and government agencies are going beyond merely glancing at a person's social networking profiles and instead asking to log in as the user to have a look around.
"It's akin to requiring someone's house keys," said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor and former federal prosecutor who calls it "an egregious privacy violation."
Questions have been raised about the legality of the practice, which is also the focus of proposed legislation in Illinois and Maryland that would forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks.
Since the rise of social networking, it has become common for managers to review publicly available Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts and other sites to learn more about job candidates. But many users, especially on Facebook, have their profiles set to private, making them available only to selected people or certain networks.
Companies that do not ask for passwords have taken other steps – such as asking applicants to friend human resource managers or to log in to a company computer during an interview. Once employed, some workers have been required to sign nondisparagement agreements that ban them from talking negatively about an employer on social media.
Until last year, the city of Bozeman, Montana, had a long-standing policy of asking job applicants for passwords to their email addresses, social-networking websites and other online accounts.
And since 2006, the McLean County, Illionis, sheriff's office has been one of several Illinois sheriff's departments that ask applicants to sign into social media sites to be screened.
Chief Deputy Rusty Thomas defended the practice, saying applicants have a right to refuse. But no one has ever done so. Thomas said that "speaks well of the people we have apply."
When asked what sort of material would jeopardise job prospects, Deputy Thomas said "it depends on the situation" but could include "inappropriate pictures or relationships with people who are under age, illegal behaviour."
E. Chandlee Bryan, a career coach and co-author of the book "The Twitter Job Search Guide," said job seekers should always be aware of what's on their social media sites and assume someone is going to look at it.
Bryan said she is troubled by companies asking for logins, but she feels it's not violation if an employer asks to see a Facebook profile through a friend request. And she's not troubled by non-disparagement agreements.
"I think that when you work for a company, they are essentially supporting you in exchange for your work. I think if you're dissatisfied, you should go to them and not on a social media site," she said.
More companies are also using third-party applications to scour Facebook profiles, Bryan said. One app called BeKnown can sometimes access personal profiles, short of wall messages, if a job seeker allows it.
Giving out Facebook login information violates the social network's terms of service. But those terms have no real legal weight, and experts say the legality of asking for such information remains murky.
The Department of Justice regards it as a federal crime to enter a social networking site in violation of the terms of service, but during recent congressional testimony, the agency said such violations would not be prosecuted.