Spying on employees on social networks… before you hire them

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2010

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s the first example I’ve seen of an outfit offering a service for outsourcing this sort of Human Resources gruntwork: a new startup gnomically named Social Intelligence promises to do a deep scan of a potential employee’s socnet presences in 48 hours, focussing on such catch-all categories as “‘Poor Judgment,’ ‘Gangs,’ ‘Drugs and Drug Lingo’ and ‘Demonstrating Potentially Violent Behavior.'” [via Bruce Schneier]

My instant knee-jerk reaction to this was OMG Panopticon! But if you think about it, it’s really just doing what paper references used to do, for a world where the fakeability and legal complications of references have made them much less useful. It’s easy to forget that social networks are a very old phenomenon; it’s their cybernetic extension into information space that’s new, and we’re all learning how to navigate these widening savannahs as we go along.

“But what about the kids? They have no concept of privacy, nor the sense to cover up their indiscretions!” Well, then the problem will solve itself, as I suggested a while back: if an entire generation starts falling foul of hawk-eyed HR socnet trawlers, the playing field will flatten. If everyone has a few dumb indiscretions on public display, we’ll simply become more accepting of the fact that everyone does stupid stuff every now and again. If anything, it’ll be the people with totally clean sheets who start to look suspect.

Schneier points out that the service is being marketed using scare tactics:

Two aspects of this are worth noting. First, company spokespeople emphasize liability. What happens if one of your employees freaks out, comes to work and starts threatening coworkers with a samurai sword? You’ll be held responsible because all of the signs of such behavior were clear for all to see on public Facebook pages. That’s why you should scan every prospective hire and run continued scans on every existing employee.

In other words, they make the case that now that people use social networks, companies will be expected (by shareholders, etc.) to monitor those services and protect the company from lawsuits, damage to reputation, and other harm. And they’re probably right.

They probably are right… but incidents like that are far rarer than the cognitive bias of media coverage would have us believe. Perhaps it’ll be fashionable for a while, but in tough economic times like these, I doubt there’ll be many companies willing to fork out big bucks to salve the legal department’s paranoia… though I have underestimated the stupidity of the hierarchical corporate mindset many times before, so I’m prepared to be proven wrong on that point.

Bonus panopticon news: the latest development over here in the United Kingdom of Closed Circuit Surveillance is an outfit called Internet Eyes, which is offering a bounty of up to £1,000 for any user who spots a crime being committed on the feeds of private security footage that will be piped through the site.

Again, sounds pretty nasty (though I’m rather alarmed by how desensitised I’ve become to stories like this in recent years), but I can’t see it working as well as Internet Eyes thinks it will. How’re they going to vet their userbase (who will watch the watchmen, indeed)? Are the sorts of people willing to stare at grainy and uneventful video feeds for hours on end on the off-chance of winning some money the sort of people whose vigilance and motives best suit the task at hand? What if the mighty Anonymous decided to infiltrate the userbase (for LULZ and great justice)? Or if criminal syndicates placed their own low-level operatives on the site, found out who was watching which feeds at what times and then planned their jobs accordingly?

And all of that largely bypasses the underlying problem, namely that Internet Eyes’ business plan almost certainly contravenes EU privacy laws. That said, the UK isn’t exactly unfamiliar with doing just that