Last week, the FTC gave a thumbs up to a firm that scans social media sites and generates background checks that could keep you on the unemployment lines.
Social Intelligence Corporation joins the seemingly thousands of firms that do credit and criminal background checks for employers, only instead of unpaid student loans and DUIs they’re looking for oversexed Facebook photos and racist tweets.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Social Intelligence Corp. is generating a lot of controversy on the InterWebs this week, though it’s mostly from people who apparently don’t realize that employers have been doing this sort of thing for years on their own.
[ See also Me, Myself, and Google’s Me on the Web. ]
I thought it couldn’t hurt to dig in and find out what Social Intell really does, though, so I got in touch with CEO Max Drucker and asked him a few barbed questions.
Drucker, who admits to posting a few questionable Facebook items himself back in the day, says his firm doesn’t turn up anything you wouldn’t find in a comprehensive Google search. So why don’t companies just use Google and avoid paying you those fat fees? I asked. Because a Google search provides too much information, says Drucker. It can turn up things like your ethnicity, religious background, or sexual orientation – factors an employer can’t legally consider when hiring you.
Companies hire Social Intelligence to filter out that information. In fact, Drucker says his company only scans your Internet footprint for four things.
Racially insensitive remarks
Sexually explicit materials
Flagrant displays of weaponry
Other demonstrations of clearly illegal activity
If you don’t score on any of the Big Four, Social Intelligence sends essentially a blank report to your prospective employer. Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill (“The Not-So Private Parts”) serves up examples of Social Intelligence reports here and here.
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"We don't make the hiring decisions, we just identify the material and give the information to prospective employers,” says Drucker. “It’s up to them to decide what to do with it.”
Social Intelligence only looks at material you make publicly available. If you’ve locked down your Facebook account so that only friends can see what you’ve posted, Social Intell can’t crack it, demand your log-on info, or pretend to be a new friend and weasel their way in, says Drucker. For Twitter, they look only at recent tweets.
And by and large they only use information you’ve posted about yourself, says Drucker. The gray area? If a friend posts a photo of you holding an AK-47 or a bong, that could be fair game, he admits. (Yet another reason why Facebook’s photo tagging policies suck.) Human beings vet all the findings, so presumably they’d be able to tell whether you’re a serious gun nut/stoner or just dressing up as Sarah Palin for Halloween.
Much of the controversy swirling around Social Intelligence has centered on the fact that once the company generates a background report on you, it stores that data for seven years. The reason they do this, says Drucker: Uncle Sam tells them to. Like credit and criminal background checks, social media background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act [PDF], which requires companies to maintain records for seven years.
But maintain the records is all they do, says Drucker. Old records are not used when generating new reports for new employers. So if you apply for a job with a company that uses Social Intelligence, and apply for another job a year later with a different company that also uses Social Intell, the company will generate a fresh report “as if we had never created the first one,” he says.
The reason for holding onto data for seven years? Legal liability. Let’s say an organization hires an employee who suddenly decides to go on a shooting spree in the office. Survivors of the shooting sue the organization for negligence, claiming that it should have known the employee was unbalanced and had a fondness for firearms. That organization could look back five years in time to the social media background check to see if there was any evidence of this.
Under the FCRA [PDF], you must be notified when you’re turned down for a job due to a black mark on your background check. So if a Facebook photo did you in, Social Intelligence would send you a letter and alert you to the offending picture. The FCRA also provides a dispute resolution process, so you could argue that it really wasn’t your body part inside those bulging boxers. (Good luck with that.)
Drucker says 5 to 10 percent of all background searches turn up something that meets one of the four search criteria, though that varies depending on the job in question; less often with blue collar factory jobs, and more often with younger white collar employees.
And, of course, the most common offense: sexually explicit pix. No surprise there.
The moral here? I think it’s pretty obvious. When it comes time to polish your resume – being sure to pump up that section about being an “independent consultant” even though you spent most of that time on the couch eating Cheerios and watching “Gilmore Girls” reruns – you’ll also need to polish your Facebook account. Get rid of those old pictures that were hysterical in college but now just make you look like an a**wipe. Scrub your tweet stream. Nuke that old MySpace account you never use any more. Don’t forget about all those accounts on Flickr, YouTube, Bebo, and every social media experiment you loved for five minutes and then abandoned.
Or just go totally private. Keep your stuff to yourself and a few trusted friends. And do it now, before you find yourself suddenly unemployed and needing to impress somebody in a hurry. Social media background checks are here to stay. Better get used to that.