Want a city job? Fork over your usernames, passwords

Bozeman, Mont. demands access to accounts on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.

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Officials who run the city of Bozeman, Montana -- perhaps setting a new standard for privacy invasion in the name of public safety -- are insisting that job applicants cough up their usernames and passwords for any social networking sites or online forums in which they participate. Reason: background checks.

From a report on Montana's News Station:

The requirement is included on a waiver statement applicants must sign, giving the City permission to conduct an investigation into the person's "background, references, character, past employment, education, credit history, criminal or police records."

"Please list any and all, current personal or business websites, web pages or memberships on any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube.com, MySpace, etc.," the City form states. There are then three lines where applicants can list the Web sites, their user names and log-in information and their passwords.

Beyond the pale, you say? Not according to Bozeman city attorney Greg Sullivan, who defended the policy after assuring the television station that "the city takes privacy rights very seriously." (Understanding them is another matter.)

"So, we have positions ranging from fire and police, which require people of high integrity for those positions, all the way down to the lifeguards and the folks that work in city hall here. So we do those types of investigations to make sure the people that we hire have the highest moral character and are a good fit for the City," Sullivan said.

The good citizens of Montana apparently do not share Sullivan's point of view. An online poll taken by the television station showed 98% of respondents -- 98%! -- believe the policy to be an invasion of privacy, although there is no indication of how many people expressed a view and we all know that online polls are pretty much useless. Nevertheless, you don't see 98% on one of them every day.

Privacy isn't the only issue. As this blog entry on NewWest.net notes, providing your username and password to another person violates the terms of services of some sites. For example, Facebook's ToS reads: "You will not share your password, let anyone else access your account, or do anything else that might jeopardize the security of your account."

And a comment posted at Boing-Boing raises more legal questions:

In an interview, they couldn't ask me about my religion, my marital status, my politics, and various other prohibited categories. That's black-letter federal law that every employer knows, especially employers with in-house government-paid lawyers.

My Facebook page alone has all that information and more, most of it conveniently gathered together in a little box.

I know the bar for discrimination lawsuits is pretty high, but wouldn't any rejected applicant have a real leg up given that there's no way the city could claim it didn't know it was demanding information it wasn't entitled to know?

Of course, perhaps there's a simple explanation for what otherwise appears to be an inexplicable case bureaucratic overreaching: Maybe the request for usernames and passwords is simply a pre-employment test? If you're dumb enough to comply, you're not qualified for the job.

(Update, June 22: City abandons policy.)

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