Social media background checks

Gadget blog Gizmodo yesterday published an irreverent but highly-entertaining article about social media background checks. Yes, you read that correctly. Not only are prospective employers and others able to look at an individual’s criminal record, credit score, and employment history, but now they can also order a review of that person’s social networking activity.

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission gave the green light for companies to provide reports on an individual’s online actions by reviewing up to seven years worth of publicly available records. That includes not just web sites such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Flickr, and YouTube, but also personal blogs, wikis, and activity on sites such as Craigslist.

One company that has already taken advantage of the FTC ruling is Social Intelligence, a Santa Barbara-based company that “enables employers to navigate the complicated landscape of social media” to “facilitate better hiring decisions and reduce organizational risk.”

Gizmodo’s Mat Honan took Social Intelligence for a spin by running background checks on six Gizmodo employees. All the checks came back clean, with the notable exception of Honan hinself, who took great delight in publishing a report full of his online drug references and other risqué behavior.

While much of the Gizmodo article was tongue-in-cheek, there was also a deadly serious message: Online background checks are becoming more thorough and more organized, and that trend is only going to continue.

On its web site, Social Intelligence makes clear that it generates its reports based on employer pre-defined criteria, both positive and negative, and is not out to compile a complete online dossier on any given individual. Examples of negative criteria might include racist remarks, sexually explicit images, or drug use. Positive examples could be evidence of charitable or volunteer work.

The company also notes that federal and state-protected information is redacted from its reports, so no references to an individual’s religious affiliations or sexual orientation. However, it’s easy to see how such information could be inferred from other comments and postings – and impossible to know whether such inferences were a factor in a decision not to hire.

It’s clear that we are just at the start of an era in which in which employers – and others – will be able to use highly sophisticated search tools to build an incredibly detailed profile of an individual’s online activities. In many cases, that online profile will be far more revealing than anything we can find out about someone from their offline actions.

The moral of the story? Nothing new there – be extremely careful about what you post online.

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