It's probably no surprise that human resource managers routinely scour the public Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts of prospective employees as part of the vetting process. Recently, though, some employers have taken their curiosity to the next level, demanding the Facebook login name and password of job applicants, especially those with locked-down privacy settings. Facebook is miffed, civil libertarians are outraged, and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are proposing new laws to bar the practice. What's going on with employers today, and does this really merit federal action?

Employers are really asking for access to Facebook accounts?
Yes. Some ask for job applicants' user name and password up front. Others demand that you sign a pledge to not disparage the company on Facebook, that you "friend" a human resources employee who can keep dibs on your social media activity, or that you log in and let the employer sift through your account with you. That last "practice is called 'shoulder surfing,'" says Leslie Horn at PC Magazine, "and, compared to flat out giving your password to a potential employer, it's actually considered a compromise." Why do applicants agree? "I needed to feed my family," explains Robert Collins, who turned over his login info to the Maryland Department of Public Safety at a re-hiring interview in 2010. 

Why do employers want to see Facebook profiles?
The practice is especially prevalent among law enforcement agencies and other public employers, who look for gang affiliations, damning photos, or other disqualifying information. Some employers just want an unvarnished look at their potential hires. "In the past, we've talked to friends and neighbors, but a lot of times we found that applicants interact more through social media sites than they do with real friends," Capt. Mike Harvey of the Spotsylvania County, Va., sheriff's department tells the AP. In other words, it's "quite a lazy way [for] bosses to get a full picture of somebody and shows that their interviewing process is unsatisfactory," British union official Sarah Veale tells The Daily Telegraph

Is it legal for employers to do this?
It's kind of a gray area. Schumer and Blumenthal say the practice probably violates anti-discrimination laws, since it potentially gives companies a look at an applicant's religious views, ethnicity, sexual preference, and other protected information. It may also flout laws against unauthorized access to electronic data. Facebook agrees, noting that sharing your password also violates the company's terms of service, and could open employers to lawsuits. Employment lawyers aren't unanimously convinced by these arguments. "I cannot see any reason why a boss could not at least ask the question," Paula Whelan at Shakespeares law firm tells The Daily Telegraph. "Prospective employees have every right to say 'no'." 

How widespread is the practice?
There is anecdotal evidence that "some clueless employers" are demanding access to Facebook accounts, but "at first blush, it's hard to believe that employers have suddenly, en masse, come down with a case of the stupids," says Charles Cooper in CNET News. Nobody was able to provide me data — not Blumenthal, not the lawmakers in Illinois and Maryland who are proposing their own laws to protect Facebook from prying employer eyes. But the actual number ultimately "may not matter so much as the perception of an outrage being committed."

So are new laws necessary?
Blumenthal and Schumer have asked the Justice Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to rule on whether Facebook fishing is already illegal, but Blumenthal says a new law might be "necessary to stop unreasonable and unacceptable invasions of privacy." Banning the "egregious privacy violation" sounds like a common-sense idea, says CNET's Cooper. But "you don't have to be a hard-core libertarian to wonder" what unsavory bits lawmakers might throw "into the mix now that the issue has all the markings of a political grab-fest."

Sources: AP, CNET News, New York Daily News, PC Magazine, PC World, Telegraph, TIME, ZDNet