Your social networks are fair game. The Federal Trade Commission has given a startup called Social Intelligence the green light to conduct background checks on you based on your social network activity under the guidelines of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Think twice about posting that embarrassing photo on Facebook, and watch what you tweet, because it may make the difference in your next job or college admissions interview.
Companies and colleges know that you have an online persona, and they are going to try to learn about the real you by investigating that online persona before making hiring or admissions decisions. Organizations are already digging in to your social networks, but they may cross ethical boundaries, and they may uncover damning information they weren't even looking for. If you think that the service offered by Social Intelligence seems invasive, or that the company is crossing the line in stalking your online antics, consider the alternative.
A service like that offered by Social Intelligence is a win-win. For organizations, it relieves the burden by letting them contract with experts who know where to look and how to gather data from social networks. For individuals, it ensures that those searches are conducted within legal boundaries that prevent discrimination.
Social Intelligence doesn't simply dig up all the dirt it can find on you and turn it over to the customer--it operates within a fairly narrow scope. I spoke with Social Intelligence co-founder and CEO Max Drucker who explained that Social Intelligence researches the social network activity of an individual through the lens of designated red flags that customers specify--things like illicit drug use, racism, or illegal activity. Only social network activity directly related to those red flags is reported to the customer.
Some media reports have demonized Social Intelligence as the bad guy. Reports that the company is maintaining a sort of social network 'permanent record' where your online misdeeds could linger and follow you around for seven years like a missed car payment on your credit report are misleading. It is true that Social Intelligence will archive data for seven years, but that is a paper trail requirement of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the archived information will not be used or have any impact on subsequent reports.
Still think it seems unfair to dig into your personal life online and use it against you? Well, A) This is 2011, get over it. You should assume that anything you post online, send in an email, tweet, text message, or otherwise digitally communicate will eventually be seen by anyone and everyone. But, B) Social Intelligence is only reporting based on the social network activity that is publicly available. You have the power to lock down your online life to minimize the information available to the general public.
Social Intelligence is currently focused only on helping HR hiring decisions, but the service is equally applicable to the college admissions process and determining the caliber of students before accepting them. If Social Intelligence doesn't offer the service to colleges, some copycat company will. Drucker told me that it is a concept that is under consideration.
In a nutshell, don't do or post about things that you wouldn't want to come up in an interview. Make sure you use the privacy controls and security features available to lock down the things you do post online to make sure they aren't available to the public. And--when push comes to shove--be thankful for services like Social Intelligence that ensure your potential employer or faculty don't just go dig up their own dirt on you. Some skeletons should stay in the closet.