I spotted this on Techdirt

The city of Bozeman, Montana is getting serious about digging up potential dirt on its future employees. As part of the application form, you have to sign a waiver allowing city officials to probe into: “background, references, character, past employment, education, credit history, criminal or police records.” Okay, nothing particularly unusual there.

But the the form goes on to require you to: “list any and all, current personal or business websites, 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.,”

Oh and did we forget to mention? Also all your login details and passwords. Hmmmmm.

  • Isn’t it almost always government agencies who leave the unencrypted laptop on the bus with all the details anyone would need to pull off a full-scale identity theft on you?
  • Would you be happy to provide all that access to, say … your mother?
  • Now that web users are so interconnected through social networking sites, wouldn’t there be a problem in terms of the privacy of all of my contacts? People link with me on Linkedin on the strict understanding that I’m not going to provide their details to anyone else without their explicit permission.

It’s hard to use Al Qaeda to justify this kind of intrusiveness and I’d be interested to see an audit that demonstrated that the quality and integrity of government employees went significantly upwards as a result of using hiring methods like these. In the past, I’ve come across situations where companies used private detectives to probe into senior executives’ backgrounds prior to hiring them. I have no idea if that information was then ever used, or distributed, inappropriately. But in the analogue world, it was unlikely that the investigation would extend into gathering private data about those executives’ friends and colleagues.

This is a very thin line and I’m not sure where it should be drawn. In Singapore, where there are state-monitored CCTV cameras everywhere, there is little or no crime and the line taken is, “I have nothing to fear because I have nothing to hide.” But what if the good Burghers of Bozeman started noticing a trend toward hiring only devout followers of a certain Belief? We might note that the Mayor and the Aldermen [or whatever] were staunch followers of this Belief and appeared to be populating the City Hall with like-minded folk. Would that be okay? Or how about if we noticed that blue-eyed, blonde, caucasian people of a certain minimum height were the only ethnic group ever hired by City Hall? [I love the line in Willy deVille’s Southern Politician: “Cos his brother, the sheriff, is head of the Klan … “]

The reason this kind of thing is not a good idea is that it is simply too open to the operation of unconscious bias. We’ve all seen the surveys about facial hair, heavyset candidates and Grace Kelly look-alikes. We are human; present us with too little information and we will make bad choices. Present us with too much information, or information that is inappropriate to our decision-making process, and I wonder what kind of choices we’ll make?

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UPDATE: Mr Murph informs us that the rocket scientists at Bozeman have now backed down on this stipulation; but not before we got a bunch of very thought-provoking and hilarious comments – treat yourself to a little read below.