Passwords Please

22:52 Thu 18 Jun 2009
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I know this has been on BoingBoing already, but it seems so ridiculous that I can’t resist posting it here too:

[The City of Bozeman]‘s background check policy … states that to be considered for a job applicants must provide log-in information and passwords for social network sites in which they participate
(emphasis mine)
“Bozeman City job requirement raises privacy concerns”, Dan Boyce, montanasnewsstation.com, 18 Jun 2009

That they ask for your username is one thing, and perhaps justifiable—after all, if someone can see information about you by using that username, the information is by definition public. It seems reasonable to ask for usernames if the city is already going to perform background checks of this kind, which is probably defensible.

Asking for the passwords, however, is completely ridiculous. I can’t really believe that they do that and try to defend it. I also wonder if the people who crafted the policy really understand what it means to have the username and password, what the potential for abuse is there, and that even if the policy were reasonable and executed in good faith (which I strongly doubt) they would have to have a fairly impressive infrastructure for keeping secure the information that applicants have given up.

Writing the passwords down on the application form doesn’t really strike me as a good start.

The city attorney claims that no-one has ever removed themselves from consideration upon reaching that point, but presumably a lot of people simply won’t fill out the section required. On the other hand, there may be enough people out there who think that blithely handing over what may effectively be the keys to your digital life to employees of the City of Bozeman is a perfectly fine thing to do.

This kind of overreach is becoming more and more common. There’s already the whole drug-testing thing, which I regard as an unconscionable invasion of privacy for the vast majority of positions, and I suspect that the people who scare employers into using their services for drug-testing are going to start pushing “online profiling” tools that will require similar pieces of information to what the City of Bozeman wants.

Personally, I have no reason to worry about either a drug test or about what a potential employer would find if given my Facebook (or whatever) usernames and passwords. But I would refuse to supply them, and I’d refuse a drug test. I wish more people had that option, and that more of the labor market could meaningfully resist this kind of thing—but the larger issue of power relations between labor and employers isn’t one I’m going to explore in this post.

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