HELENA, Mont. -- Job applicants with the city of Bozeman are finding that their private Internet discussions and pictures may not be so private after all.
The city is asking job seekers for the user names and passwords to Internet social networking or Web groups to which they belong. The decision is sparking an outcry from those who say the policy goes way too far.
The issue has spawned hundreds of comments on Web forums and sharp criticism from legislators and the ACLU.
"I liken it to them saying they want to look at your love letters and your family photos," said Amy Cannata, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. "I think this policy certainly crosses the privacy line."
The city argues that it only uses the information to verify application information - and says it won't hold it against anyone for refusing to provide it. City officials say such checks can be useful, especially when hiring police officers and others in a position of public trust.
Bozeman officials have been hammered with e-mails and phone calls ever since KBZK-TV of Bozeman reported the policy on Wednesday, including an excerpt from the city application form that states "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."
Bozeman City Commissioner Jeff Rupp said he was unaware city officers had implemented the policy, and expects the city commission will be talking about it. But Rupp said it is not as bad as it sounds since applicants are not scored negatively for refusing to answer the question.
"I can tell you I would not provide it in an application I submit," Rupp said. "I have been told repeatedly it is not scored, and the application is not discarded if not provided."
Rep. Brady Wiseman, a Bozeman Democrat, led the state's fight against the Patriot Act when the Legislature issued a harsh critique of the federal act, arguing it trampled civil liberties and put the government into a position of snooping on citizens.
Wiseman said Bozeman now is going too far.
"Asking for passwords is over the line," Wiseman said. "I think that this notion opens up a whole new line of debate on privacy."
The intense pressure generated in just a couple days is hitting the city hard.
Bozeman City Attorney Greg Sullivan told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Thursday that the city may look at changing the policy so that they could view an applicant's social networking sites without asking for login information. One option would be to have an applicant add the city as a "friend" on such sites as Facebook.
"We've already began that discussion," Sullivan said.
Cannata, with the ACLU, said her organization has not found another government body that asks for such information. And even though the ACLU has not done a full legal analysis, she said the Bozeman policy doesn't pass the smell test.
"It's one thing, and I think totally reasonable, if someone has a public profile to go check it out," Cannata said.
But private groups and profile could reveal information employers could not legally base hiring decisions on, such as a person's religion, she added.
"Are they going to go in and look at those things?" Cannata said. "And even if they don't intend to look at those things, it's still there for them to see."