Internet Footprint Driving Away Employers?

Social Intelligence Corp. scours one's public online activity from the past seven years and reports it to prospective employers. Its CEO Max Drucker explains what specific data the company looks for, how often monitoring occurs, and what this means in terms of privacy concerns. Also joining the conversation is Electronic Privacy Information Center Senior Counsel John Verdi.

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ALLISON KEYES, host: I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we'll talk about the perks the millennial generation wants on a job and how employers are working to meet them halfway.

But first, you've been telling your friends not to post those silly photos of themselves clutching brimming beer mugs, or worse, posting angry or threatening status updates. Now, that may be coming back to haunt them thanks to the Social Intelligence Corporation.

The company searches everything you've done publicly online for the past seven years and reports back to prospective employers. But will the increasingly blurred lines between our social and work lives end up costing you a job? To talk about the rising use of social media background checks, we invited Max Drucker, CEO and co-founder of Social Intelligence Corporation and John Verdi, the senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

MAX DRUCKER: Great to be here.

JOHN VERDI: Thank you.

KEYES: So, Max, let me start with you. If you've got the skills, you're qualified for the job, you're not doing anything illegal, why does it matter what you're doing on Facebook or Twitter or whatever?

DRUCKER: Well, Social Intelligence Corp only looks for employer predefined criteria and that criteria is racist remarks, potentially violent behavior, illegal activity such as drug use and sexually explicit material. We do not look or report on anything else. So that job applicant really is able to have a robust and strong online presence without fearing being discriminated against based on some post of them drinking beer, or even worse, something that - such as them being a single mom and that coming back to haunt them because an employer made a hiring decision illegally based on that information.

KEYES: So, what kind of activities do you look at and where do you look for them?

DRUCKER: We look both on the major social networks, but we also look broader to the message boards, to comments on news articles, to the photo and video sharing sites. And we are looking for very specific things. We are looking for people that make blatantly racist statements. We are looking for people that are flagrantly displaying a weapon, an assault rifle, pointing it at the camera.

KEYES: Wait. Let me ask you a question, though, I mean, because assault rifles are legal in some places. So, why is that a problem?

DRUCKER: Well, the employer has the right and the employer chooses what we are to look for. And if an employer is not concerned about that, we don't identify it. To answer the question about why this may be relevant, that's up to the employer. But an argument they may make is, well, this isn't illegal and this is their right to do. They may not feel that a person is representing them the way that company would want them to represent themselves publicly.

KEYES: John, let me bring you into the conversation, because the idea of pouring over someone's internet footprint can be alarming to some privacy advocates. But if it's stuff that you have publicly put out there yourself, why is it a privacy issue?

VERDI: Well, I think it is alarming. I think the reality is that these sorts of social media background checks are here to stay regardless of whether it's social intelligence, whether it's employers doing this work themselves or whether it's another service. So, the reason why one might be concerned about this sort of social background check is that many social profiles on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter are necessarily incomplete.

Individuals use their privacy settings to reveal some information to the public and to not reveal other information to the public.

KEYES: Right.

VERDI: To take your example of an individual with an assault rifle. If you were to take a photograph of an individual with an assault rifle and you take that photograph out of context and you put it in a background check report, what you don't learn is that that individual was recently discharged from the Marine Corps. That that photograph was taken while they were stationed overseas in Iraq.

And the employer has no way to know that, nor do social intelligence have any way to know that unless the individual has revealed other information about themselves beyond the photograph on the social networking site. So context is important.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with John Verdi, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. I'm also joined by Max Drucker, CEO and co-founder of Social Intelligence Corporation.

Let me ask you both a question. Just a couple of years back, anything that you did outside of the workplace pretty much wasn't your boss' business, right? But if you go to pulling people's comments on news stories and checking in to whether somebody tried to buy a car, something on Craigslist, that might strike some as a pretty extreme intrusion into your personal life.

I mean, that's kind of, as one commentator I saw suggested, like having your boss send someone to the bar you're at, listen to your conversation and then come back and tell your boss what you said. I mean, John, isn't that kind of like being on the clock 24/7, everything you do and say?

VERDI: Well, yeah. The legal considerations aside, there's a real human question to ask here. And the question that we need to ask is, do we want to put vastly more information about employees and job applicants' private lives in front of their employers or prospective employers? And do we want that information to have any kind of relevancy, guarantees concerning their employment status, concerning their job description?

That's a question that we as a society need to ask ourselves. How much privacy are we willing to give up and put in the hands of our employers, who, let's be honest, control our paycheck.

KEYES: Max, explain why it's OK for a boss to have that level of control over what the employee's doing.

DRUCKER: Employers are in a really tough spot in the age of social media. If they're one of the 80 percent of employers that are doing the Internet thing themselves, they are exposing themselves to all kinds of things that aren't legally allowable, or frankly not relevant. And thus are violating that job applicant's privacy.

But on the other hand, they have an obligation to protect their existing employees against major risks, which really fall into the same categories as why they do the traditional screens such as criminal and drug. The way we solve this problem is by only identifying predefined criteria and ignore everything else.

KEYES: Let me ask you, Max, does your company do ongoing monitoring of people or just the one-time background check?

DRUCKER: We do ongoing monitoring, but purely to the specifications of enforcing a company's social media policy.

KEYES: So how is that not basically having somebody standing over said person's shoulder every time they're at the computer?

DRUCKER: Well, most corporations or many corporations monitor activity on their Internet use and on their computers. But a company has the right to have a social media policy, and that's part of their employee handbook.

KEYES: John, what kind of different privacy concerns does ongoing monitoring offer, if any?

VERDI: One of the major risks is that company social media policies are often illegally overbroad. There was one example recently in the state of Connecticut where an ambulance worker took to the social media site to complain about her boss, who she believed was endangering workplace safety with some of the decisions that he was making on the job.

Now, that sort of speech is actually protected under the National Labor Relations Act. Employees are entitled to talk about workplace safety concerns without penalty and without reprisal. However, she was fired from her job. And the National Labor Relations Board had to intervene.

All of those actions by the company were consistent with its social media policy. And that company's social media policy was no employee may post anything on social media about the company.

KEYES: Let me ask a final question to you both. First, John. If you've got stuff out there that you shouldn't have out there, do you just take it down or do you try and find a way to explain that when you go into the job interview in the first place and try and avoid this? And, Max, I want you to answer it after John does.

VERDI: Well, I think everybody has the right to pull down information that they previously have shared on social media sites. And if someone is going into a job search, I think that they would be wise to do a self-assessment on their social media profile. As to explaining it, I think context is critical and the real question is whether or not individuals are going to be given a meaningful opportunity to provide that context within the job search.

KEYES: Max, same question to you. And, again, you're going back into seven years of data. So, explain how much saving here people have an opportunity to do.

DRUCKER: Well, we can use anything that goes back seven years. But everything we're still looking at is publicly available. It's what's out there right now. And, yes, I totally agree with John. You should do some sort of self-assessment. But I'm also a major advocate that a person can have a very strong online profile and a positive one. And social intelligence also identifies very specific positive criteria for those reports and redact anything, again, that's not legally allowable.

KEYES: All right. I've got to leave it there, gentlemen. Max Drucker is co-founder and CEO of Social Intelligence Corporation. He joined us from Santa Barbara, California. John Verdi is senior counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. He joined us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you, gentlemen, both, for a spirited conversation.

DRUCKER: Great. Thank you.

VERDI: Thank you.

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