Job seekers are routinely advised to scrub their social media pages of photos and text that might present them in an unprofessional light, or to limit access to friends and family only. This well-intentioned advice, however, may have simply prompted employers to turn to more invasive methods. The Associated Press has investigated several places, mostly US public agencies like police or emergency dispatch departments, that require applicants to either hand over their Facebook or other social media passwords or log in and let employers look through private photos or wall posts.

Police department spokespeople said they usually looked for evidence of illegal activity or behavior that could damage the department's reputation. But social media sites aren't purely public-facing. A Facebook password, for example, would also give employers access to private messages or chats — analogous to giving up access to email. In some cases, employers made disclosing the password voluntary, but one sheriff boasted that no one had ever refused. And in a difficult job market, applicants have little leverage.

This isn't a new phenomenon: some of the policies have been in place for years. In the past few months, though, it's gotten increasing attention, and Illinois and Maryland have both proposed legislation to prevent employers from asking for passwords. Meanwhile, applicants will have to balance their desire for privacy with financial need. "If you need to put food on the table for your three kids, you can't afford to stand up for your belief," says one applicant who told the AP he was lucky enough to be able to refuse the request.