Keeping Big Brother at bay

A rapidly evolving technological landscape presents all sorts of opportunities for Missoula businesses. But tracking the social media and personal email accounts of current or potential employees should not be one of them. That's the premise behind a new law discussed by the Missoula City Council last week.

"On devices that you own and accounts that you don't use for work, you should have that expectation (of privacy)," says Councilman Jason Wiener, who introduced the proposal and owns a computer consulting firm. "You should be able to keep those separate from your work life."

Employers don't always agree with that perspective. In 2009, the City of Bozeman drew criticism for requiring applicants to provide their social media login information so managers could scrutinize personal pages. The idea behind the policy, as City Manager Chris Kukulski told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, was to ensure that municipal staffers were trustworthy.

The practice, however, ignited a firestorm of complaints from state legislators, the American Civil Liberties Union and the media, including gossip columnist Perez Hilton, who asked Gallatin Valley officials on his website, "Big brother much?"

Less than a week after news broke about the policy, the Bozeman City Commission ended the practice.

The incursion helped motivate Democratic state Sen. Anders Blewett and three cosponsors to introduce a bill during the last legislative session that sought to ban employers from engaging in such behavior. After hearing from insurance companies, banks and attorneys who argued that such a law would impede their ability to, for instance, investigate instances of corporate espionage or other unlawful and unsavory behavior, the House shelved that legislation. Similar laws have been passed in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

In Missoula, Sachi Sinhara, an international student at the University of Montana, testified before a council committee meeting last week that she had been asked by an employer to provide personal email account names and passwords.

She did, but now feels like her privacy was violated. Sinhara says she's self-conscious about messages she sends to friends and family, wondering if her employer is reading them. "It's just really weird to feel like someone is watching me," she told the Independent.

That's among the reasons she's working with the nonprofit Montana Public Interest Research Group, where she's an intern, to support Wiener's legislation.

Council will vet Wiener's proposal during a July 22 public hearing.

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