Promiscuous online culture and the vetting process

Social networks have forever changed hiring and background checks

Social networks, and the big data to analyze them, will forever change how we vet candidates, whether for security clearance, employment, or political office. Technology can help employers check candidates’ backgrounds, monitor their behavior once hired, and protect their online reputations. But using the social tracks we share — and what we omit — has important ethical and legal consequences.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010According to CareerBuilder, 45 percent of applicants were screened in this way in 2009 — up from 22 percent the year before — regardless of legality. Seventy-four percent of Americans between 18 and 34 have an account on Facebook or MySpace, according to a Harris poll. At the intersection of promiscuous online culture and easy access to search lies a world where it’s impossible to hide. And these days, you look suspicious for trying, or even forgetting something innocently.

This changes the vetting process. What once took days of phone calls and pages of forms can be done with a few clicks — whether you’re a government, an employer, a reporter, or a terrorist cell. Now that the Library of Congress is archiving every Tweet, ever, your past is a matter of permanent public record.

The state of national security clearance

In the U.S. government, candidates for national security positions must complete Standard Form 86 (SF-86). It collects a wide range of information, and it’s the starting point for an investigation into your background.

A public online life won’t replace a questionnaire entirely. But doing some basic analysis of an applicant’s social network can pre-populate much of the form. How much of your digital persona should be considered in an investigation? And how will processes like those surrounding SF-86 change in a world where applicants’ lives are lived in public, online?

One hint at what the vetting of candidates in a connected world might look like is the Obama campaign’s questionnaire required of all political appointees. In addition to more traditional background questions, it asks for:

  • All blog posts, comments, and speeches you’ve made.
  • All emails, text messages, and instant messages that could suggest a conflict of interest or public source of embarrassment.
  • The URLs of any sites that feature you in a personal or professional capacity.
  • All of the aliases you’ve used online.

Why we screen applicants

Each of us has plenty of reasons to check someone’s background before entrusting them with important matters or our endorsements:

  • We care about their identity. Are they who they claim to be?
  • We want to examine their background to identify past embarrassments.
  • Their past can help predict whether they’ll do what we expect in the future
  • Once they’re on board, we want to track their ongoing activity to identify security breaches as soon as possible and detect anomalies.

Peer-reviewed identity in the era of open social graphs is a game changer. Consider, for example, the work involved in creating a false identity today: Photoshopping childhood pictures, friending complete strangers, maintaining multiple distinct Twitter feeds, and checking in from several cities. It’s enough to make Bond retire.

What assisted clearance would look like

Background clearance systems might be used at all stages of the employment process: screening applicants at the outset to speed the discovery process and find inconsistencies; tracking employees to decide whether clearance should be revoked; and protecting reputation by flagging and mitigating risky online relationships or disclosures.

The ethical implications

Hiring is heavily regulated to ensure fair, equitable consideration of candidates. For example, if credit bureau derogatory data is used to disqualify a candidate, this must be revealed to the job seeker so it can be disputed. A similar model might be used for employment decisions based on publicly available social network data (e.g., statements by someone with the same name, yet a different person). If employers rely on social networks, they may be creating processes that disadvantage the part of the population that isn’t using social media. In other words, you can’t discriminate against someone just because they’re off the grid.

A life lived in public changes the law, too. Onus probandi — the burden of proof — is the foundation of our legal system. In criminal proceedings, the burden is on the accuser, who must demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. For civil cases, the test is less rigorous. But in a recorded, shared world, the absence of records may be enough to sway a jury reared on Facebook or to throw suspicion on someone. In the court of public opinion, we’re increasingly expected to live our lives in public, and being too private is a slippery slope toward an admission of guilt.

When records are abundant and analysis is cheap, the line between a background check and a replay of our lives will be blurry at best. As that happens, we need to establish ethical and legal guidelines for dealing with the change.

Note: The upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo will include a session that expands on many of the topics raised in this post.

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  • Gal Shpantzer

    Excellent post. What is the relevance of information we divulge about ourselves, voluntarily or otherwise (Facebook privacy changes, Google Buzz…) For some helpful links on how the government perceives personnel security and actual appeals cases where people got rejected for a clearance, see article here at CSO Online:

  • Theodor Adorno

    Screening applicants by researching their social networking content and associations, while also loudly advertising this practice through media, is a form of “sensitivity training” (developed in the Soviet Union and practiced in the USA as “political correctness”). This communicates to the applicant certain behavioral norms that they must comply with in order to be “successful” in today world. While some may not have an issue with behavioral controls, before discarding the analysis they should ask themselves who are guiding these social norms and to what ends? Is a mono-culture, which is obvious conclusion of such a system, really culture at all, or one that anyone here would like to live in?

  • Mardi

    This is yet, one more reason to go into business for yourself! Before you know it people will be like walking zombies afraid to step out of the norm in fear of ruining ones career. Discrimination will be an art form when it’s all said and done. So sad!!!

  • Pie

    Alistair, great chatting at the E 2.0 conference. I have a few thoughts on this article.

    – Dig into the stats, less than half of American adults have MySpace or FB accounts, and only 16% update them at least once a day. I have many friends that barely get there once a month. Existence does not equal accuracy or completeness. Don’t use the 18-34 demographic to skew things.

    – The Career search doesn’t reveal what percent found the people they were looking for in those searches. The point is still important though, separating work from personal is now takes effort.

    – When you get outside of the tech industry, the lack of a public profile is not automatically considered hiding.

    I will finish by saying that I do think that the trend is heading in the direction of the world you are describing. I just don’t believe that we are as far along as you say.