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Montana City Asks Job Applicants for Online Passwords


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Bozeman, Mont., City Commissioners Say They Were 'Blindsided' by Requirement

[smaller]By KI MAE HEUSSNER | abcnews.com | June 19, 2009 | Link [/smaller]

Would you want a potential employer scanning your Facebook wall or clicking through photos of you with family and friends?

Well, if you apply for a job with the city of Bozeman, Mont., you might run that risk.

On the city's Web site, a waiver statement for background and reference checks asks job applicants to release information about personal, professional and social networking Web sites, including log-in information and passwords.

"Please list any and all, current personal or business web sites, 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 document reads.

An anonymous viewer contacted WBZK TV in Bozeman expressing privacy concerns over the policy. Since the station aired a story on the requirement Wednesday evening, Bozeman City Commissioner Sean Becker said e-mails and phone calls expressing outrage from across the country have been pouring in.

Outrage Pours In From Coast to Coast

"The commission was blindsided by this," he said. "We had no idea that the background checks went to that level." He said city officials have been "overwhelmed with calls from the East to the West coasts."

Becker said that while the city needed to weigh privacy rights against the public's right to know about those whom the city hires, he said that this requirement "seems exceedingly invasive and unwarranted, and that perception needs to be dealt with straight on."

As a Facebook member, Becker acknowledged that disclosing personal password information directly violates the social networking site's Terms of Service.

In addition to violating Facebook's policies, a company spokesman told ABCNews.com that they think it violates personal privacy and plan to reach out to city officials to discuss it further.

For the requirement to be suspended, three of the city's five commissioners would need to oppose it, Becker said.

Although the commissioners are not able to meet until Monday, he expected they would vote to eliminate it at that meeting.

Commissioners Eric Bryson and Jeff Krauss also told ABCNews.com that they did not support the requirement.

"Would the city administration insist on entry into an applicant's home to rifle through their correspondence files? Would they want permission to tap their phones?" Krauss asked in an e-mail. "This is a bridge too far."

Commissioners Believe Requirement Is 3 Years Old

Bryson said that when he learned of the requirement through Internet stories highlighting its "absurdity," his initial reaction was "one of disbelief.

"While I can understand the requirement for highly sensitive positions within the city, this is not a requirement that I support for general employment purposes," he said.

Chris Kukulski, who has been the city manager since 2004, said it was his understanding that the human resources department had been asking for social networking and other online information for the past three or four years.

And though he didn't recall debating the policy with his staff members, he acknowledged that his office approved it.

"There's no doubt. I am responsible for the organization," he told ABC News. "This wasn't something that was thoroughly debated among our staff."

Over the course of the day, he said that he and his staff intended to review the policy, including its consequences and the context of its origin. On Monday, he plans to present their findings and recommendation to the commission. As of now, all options are on the table. They could recommend suspending, maintaining or altering the policy, he said.

He pointed out that the policy did not require applicants to disclose their password information but merely asked them to. To his knowledge, he said no applicant had been removed from consideration for failing to give the city personal password information.

Regardless, Kukulski said it worried him to learn that revealing password information violates agreements with some social networking sites.

Although he did not defend or condemn the policy, he said, "Our perspective is that they are public servants who are viewed 24/7 by the public, I think we do have a duty, particularly in certain areas, to make sure that we are doing a thorough background check to make sure these folks don't have anything out there that would cause us or the public concern."

He said this could be a particularly helpful component of a screening process for those seeking positions in law enforcement, fire safety or child care.

"I can imagine seeing someone posting illegal activities on their Facebook page," he said. "Whether that be something as extreme as child pornography as an example or something as extreme as setting out their character as being a hater of law enforcement."

But he emphasized that screening a social networking site would only be part of a larger process.

Although his colleagues spoke adamantly against the policy, Commissioner Jeff Rupp said it was his understanding that the requirement was "innocuous."

Privacy Expert: Requirement is 'Indefensible Invasive'

Rupp said that job applicants are asked to reveal their online password information, but if they choose not to it is not counted against them.

However, when asked if he knew that the requirement violated service agreements with social networking sites, he said he had not been informed of that.

"If we find ourselves in that position, I would be supportive of not going there,"Rupp said. "I just need to hear a lot more information before I make up my mind."

Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who specializes in free speech and privacy law, was taken aback when he heard about the city's requirement.

"I have never heard of anything so indefensibly invasive," he said. "What's next? A log-in for your e-mail account? Where does it stop and what's the justification for it? ... I think this is a significant problem."

Bozeman Residents React Strongly

Not only does it seem to be a first amendment problem, it's a basic online security problem, Bankston said.

And for their part, some local residents were astonished.

"It really surprised a lot of people," said David Smith, president and CEO of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce. He said he wasn't aware of it until he saw the news piece Wednesday night.

He said it alarmed him that the city would ask applicants to disclose information that would give the city access to not only their information but also the information of any of their friends on social networking sites.

Smith also said that it would give the city insights into applicants' sexual orientation, religion and family planning intentions -- information an employer is not supposed to consider when hiring.

"To me, it looks like a potential discrimination opportunity," he said. Given the state's tradition of high privacy standards, he expected city residents to react strongly.

"I think there will be a very protracted discussion at a public meeting about it," he said.

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