Does your future boss have a right to see your Facebook page?

A Maryland case in which job seekers were asked to share their Facebook profile highlights a broader trend of employers trying to keep abreast of what their workers are doing online.

Normally an employer who logs into your Facebook or Google+ account to peruse your private messages, photos, and wall posts would be violating federal computer hacking laws.

Unless, of course, you give them permission.

That's the legal loophole that at least some employers are using to learn more about their prospective hires. In theory, it's voluntary, but in reality, if you don't log into your account and let an interviewer poke around, you may not get the job.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about privacy controls. But that doesn't protect you if you turn over your username and password.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about privacy controls. But that doesn't protect you if you turn over your username and password. James Martin/CNET

Job seekers applying to Maryland's Division of Corrections have been asked during interviews to "log into their accounts and let an interviewer watch while the potential employee clicks through wall posts, friends, photos and anything else that might be found behind the privacy wall," says a report today by Bob Sullivan at MSNBC.

This is a change from last year's Division of Corrections policy, which required applicants to provide their Facebook login and password, according to a report last year from the ACLU of Maryland. The stated goal: to weed out corrections officers with gang-related affiliations. A North Carolina police department has reportedly taken the same approach.

It's also part of a growing trend of employers trying to keep abreast of what their workers are doing online. One product called Trackur boasts that its "social media monitoring tools are easy to use, yet offer a surprising number of features." SocialIntel.com offers "social media screening" through a "powerful, cost-effective method of alerting employers to social media policy violations."

In general, employers have the right to fire workers for off-color or unsavory things they say when blogging (or Facebooking or Tweeting or Google-plussing) on the job or about their job.

There are exceptions to that rule. Union employees with a contract are often protected from being fired without "just cause." Being fired because you disclosed your religion or sexual orientation on a blog is likely illegal. Organizing a union is also protected, which led to a National Labor Relations Board complaint against a Connecticut medical-services company in 2010.

But few disciplinary actions fall into those relatively narrow categories. Apple has fired an employee in the U.K. for making negative comments about the company's products on Facebook. An Australian government employee was fired for using Google to search for the word "knockers," which had nothing to do with doors.

If history's any indication, any informational advantage an employer receives from trying to extract login credentials will be short-lived. Job applicants will scrub their profiles in advance, as an article from our CBSNews.com sister site already advises them to do. Or apps to do it will become more popular (a Facebook app called Wisk-It already exists).

In other words, employers will only snag ill-prepared applicants who aren't very savvy about technology or social media. Which, perhaps, is good enough.

 

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