June 20, 2009

City requires Facebook passwords from job applicants

If you're planning to apply for a job with the city of Bozeman, prepare to clean up your Facebook page.

As part of routine background checks, the city asks job applicants to provide their usernames and passwords for their social-networking sites. And it has been doing it for years, city officials said.

"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, MySpace, etc.," states a city waiver form applicants are asked to sign. Three lines are provided for applicants to list log-in information for each site.

City officials maintain the policy is necessary to ensure employees' integrity and protect the public's trust, but the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana says they may be crossing the line.

"I would guess that they're on some shaky legal ground with this and we would certainly welcome (the opportunity) to look at something specific from somebody who's impacted," Executive Director Scott Crichton said Thursday.

He said Bozeman's policy is unprecedented as far as he knows. ACLU's legal counsel in Washington, D.C., had never heard of another city asking for log-in information for social networking sites as part of a job application.

"It's like saying, 'Let me look through your e-mails,'" Crichton said.

"The city certainly has access to publicly accessible information, but it gets pretty questionable when they start asking for password-protected things that are created to create privacy for communications between your friends and family," he said. "That seems to be going too far."

City Manager Chris Kukulski said the city checks the sites in order to ensure that employees who might be handling taxpayer money, working with children in recreation programs or entering residents' homes as an emergency services worker are reputable and honest.

"It's just one of the tools, like all the other tools, that we've used to do a thorough background check," Kukulski said.

The city also checks credit reports, criminal history, references and past employment, among other things.

"We have to do some due diligence," Kukulski said.

News of the city's policy went 'round the world via the Internet Thursday, triggering outrage and prompting comments by media outlets and bloggers. Celebrity gossip columnist Perez Hilton even weighed in on the news.

"Big Brother much?" he wrote. "We've heard of employers looking up potential employees on Facebook, but this seems a bit extreme."

The Guardian, a major daily newspaper in London, named the city of Bozeman its "civil liberties villain of the week" on its Web site.

City Attorney Greg Sullivan said in light of concerns being expressed by the public, officials are looking at ways to alter the policy so that they might view an applicant's online information without asking for log-in codes.

"We've already begun that discussion," Sullivan said Thursday afternoon.

For example, city officials said they could ask applicants to log into their Facebook page and show it to a city official during the application process, or add the city as a "friend" so the officials could view the applicant's page.

Bozeman has checked job applicants' social networking sites for about three years, said Human Resources Director Pattie Berg. HR staff or supervisors in the department in which the job is sought are charged with reviewing the sites.

However, Bozeman's city commissioners are exempt from the policy because elected officials aren't subjected to the same background check as city employees, said Chuck Winn, assistant city manager.

City administrators first enacted the policy for police and fire department job applicants, said Mark Lachapelle, deputy chief of investigations for the Bozeman Police Department. The policy wasn't presented to the Bozeman City Commission because the commission typically isn't charged with setting personnel policies.

Winn said that in his former position as fire chief, he was sometimes responsible for looking at potential firefighters' social-networking sites. He said he primarily looked for illegal activity.

"It's not about taste or anything," Winn said.

In at least one instance, an applicant's social-networking site figured into disqualifying the person for a job, Winn and Lachapelle said. Lachapelle said information from the site was one of several components that contributed to the decision. He declined to discuss the case more specifically, citing privacy concerns.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.

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