By Brendan Jackson
Daily Bruin, U. California-Los Angeles
(UWIRE)—Imagine applying for a job where the interviewer already knows quite a bit about your social life before you walk through the front door.
For some job applicants, this has become reality.
A recent report by The Associated Press on employers who demand access to job applicants' social networking sites during the application process has prompted an investigation by the Justice Department.
In the past several months, it has become apparent that an increasing number of companies are demanding applicants' usernames and passwords to run background checks, according to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who asked for the investigation along with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York.
"An investigation by the Department of Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will help remedy ongoing intrusions and coercive practices, while (lawmakers) draft new statutory protections to clarify and strengthen the law," Blumenthal said in a statement released last week.
Companies are demanding applicants' usernames and passwords to run background checks. Facebook has also come out against employers that engage in this form of background checks, citing that the practice is in violation of Facebook's Terms of Service.
The company is working seriously to protect the privacy of its users and has urged users to not release login information to third parties, Facebook's chief privacy officer Erin Egan said in a statement.
"If you are a Facebook user, you should never have to share your password, let anyone access your account or do anything that might jeopardize the security of your account or violate the privacy of your friends," Egan said in the statement.
While several companies have engaged in the controversial hiring practice, UCLA spokesman Steve Ritea said the university does not rely on social network background checks during the hiring process.
"Since the hiring process is decentralized, I cannot say authoritatively that no university department uses Facebook as a screening tool, but the main human resources office is not aware of any department that engages in the practice," Ritea said.
If any department were to seek the human resources office's advice on the hire practice, the human resources office would strongly discourage using Facebook as a screening tool, he added.
The alleged practice has renewed the debate about whether employers should view applicants' Facebook profiles as a screening tool.
As the demand for login information has become more prevalent, questions are being raised about the legality of the hiring practice.
The issue is more about equal-opportunity employment and less about privacy, said Eric Bollens, a software architect at the UCLA Office of Information Technology and a fifth-year computer science student.
"Once an employer uses Facebook to screen applicants, they are (exposed) to information that would bias their view of a job candidate and would put them in violation of Equal Opportunity laws," Bollens said.
If applicants' prospective employment is contingent on handing over their username and password, then the employer is using undue coercion, he added.
Questions are being raised about the legality of the hiring practice. Bridget Conlin, a first-year pre-communication studies student, said the practice could actually work against employers.
"I think it's common for people to manipulate their profile to carefully craft a public image that is contrary to their true self," Conlin said.
First-year bioengineering student Julia Thulin received an extensive background check with the Federal Drug Administration and the Los Angeles Children's Hospital review board before earning an internship with the hospital in November. But a Facebook login was never a part of that, she said.
Thulin said that companies that demand login information of job applicants could be overstepping privacy boundaries.
"I understand why employers would want access to a Facebook profile to learn more about an applicant, but I don't believe companies should have access to a trove of private information," Thulin said.