Turns out that the city of Bozeman, Mont., has been asking job applicants to cough up their user names and passwords to the online sites they visit, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, and MySpace.
It's mind-boggling that someone in a position of power thought this unprecedented intrusion into people's lives was a good idea.
Consider how people use social networking sites. They chat with friends, share photos, watch videos, discuss books, join political groups, join religious groups, and engage in myriad other forms of expression.
It's inconceivable that a city would ask job applicants -- at least for routine positions -- about even one of those activities in the offline world. Imagine the outcry that would follow if a city told prospective employees it wanted to record their home phone calls, or obtain their library or video rental records. In fact, we already have laws protecting the confidentiality of such information.
Why, then, would Bozeman officials possibly think it's okay to obtain people's YouTube viewing records? Or learn if they've joined book groups -- or any other groups, for that matter -- on Facebook?
Of course, the problem here goes far beyond the privacy rights of job applicants. That's because if the government has access to people's messages, it's also getting information about people's friends -- information that those friends had no reason to think would be shared with Bozeman human resources officials.
Then there's the matter of civil rights laws. It's illegal to discriminate against job applicants based on factors like marital status, religion, medical conditions, whether they have children. In fact, it's illegal to even ask applicants about those topics. But there's no need to, say, ask an applicant if she's pregnant when you can learn the answer by reading her Facebook page.
In fact, John Morris, an attorney with the Center for Democracy & Technology, tells MediaPost that the city is opening itself up to discrimination lawsuits by asking people for their log-in information. Officials in Bozeman should at least want to protect the city's coffers, even if they don't see the need to protect people's privacy. Hopefully, they'll put an end to this practice immediately.