Commentary

City To Job Seekers: What's Your Facebook Password?

Last night, at around the same time that Congress was grilling Web companies about whether they adequately protect users' privacy, news was unfolding about what appears to be the worst Web privacy violation the country has yet seen.

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.

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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.

3 comments about "City To Job Seekers: What's Your Facebook Password? ".
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  1. Bill Bledsoe from Microsoft, June 19, 2009 at 5:31 p.m.

    <Disclaimer> This is NOT the opinion of my employer or any other human on the planet. It is mine alone! </disclaimer>
    So here's the thing about this... the reality is the aura of your privacy in a social media space is grossly overexaggerated. What I tell people when they talk about what they should post on facebook, twitter, etc. is that they need to realize that this stuff is PERMANENT, and PUBLIC. The right to privacy does not extend to a sign you put in your front yard. I can by law, take a picture of your house from a public street... and if you have a sign in your yard saying "I'm pregnant" then... that's public information. The "what would you put on your front lawn" metaphor is really the appropriate metaphor for online activity... with respect to the law in the US. What can be seen from the public street/property is completely fair game. A perfect example of this? A local legislator that tweeted that she and other council members were at a bar/restaurant after a council meeting "debriefing" from the meeting. She's in trouble for doing that. Why? Well... it seems her tweet shined a big ol' flashlight on the fact that this group was gathering and if there were enough of them... would have violated our state's sunshine laws (you have to post public notice of a public mtg, etc.). Was someone "invading her privacy" because they noticed her tweet? No. She tweeted, it is PERMANENT and PUBLIC. Essentially she put it on her front lawn. So... my advice is... if you're applying for a job in Bozeman... or anywhere else for that matter... you'd better be ready to either defend what you've posted on your front lawn.. or don't post it.

  2. Jim Taylor from Eternity Enterprises, LLC, June 19, 2009 at 6:59 p.m.

    This is such an invasion of privacy. The responsible parties or employers requesting this information should be held liable. I'm with you hopefully they will put an end to this practice immediately.

  3. Casey Quinlan from Mighty Casey Media LLC, June 21, 2009 at 10:28 a.m.

    Bill Bledsoe makes a valid point about what we put out on the web being the "permanent record" we were threatened with in childhood (and that we discovered, in adulthood, did not exist) - however, asking people for their PASSWORDS to social media sites is ridiculous. That means..what, they have ideas about changing settings? Posting links? I live out loud, in both my virtual and my real worlds. I do not, however, hand over my passwords. To anyone. For any reason.

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