Anatomy of a socnet background check

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2011

Over at Gizmodo, they’ve taken the social network “background check” service offered by a company called Social Intelligence for a spin. The results are interesting:

In May, the FTC gave a company called Social Intelligence the green light to run background checks of your Internet and social media history. The media made a big hulabaloo out of the ruling. And it largely got two important facts wrong.

Contrary to initial reports, Social Intelligence doesn’t store seven years worth of your social data. Rather it looks at up to seven years of your history, and stores nothing.

The second was the idea that it was looking for boozy or embarrassing photos of you to pass along to your employer. In fact it screens for just a handful of things: aggressive or violent acts or assertions, unlawful activity, discriminatory activity (for example, making racist statements), and sexually explicit activity. And it doesn’t pass on identifiable photos of you at all. In other words, your drunken kegstand photos are probably fine as long as you’re not wearing a T-shirt with a swastika or naked from the waist down.

Basically, it just wants to know if you’re the kind of asshole who will cause legal hassles for an employer.

[…]

… we learned a few things about how it works, and what you can do if you’ve got to have one of these reports run. And you will.

For starters, what it doesn’t include in the report is nearly as interesting as what it does. Every image of me that might be able to identify my ethnicity is blacked out, even my hands. On my homepage, a line that reads “I drink too much beer” has been obscured because it’s ultimately irrelevant. Screw you, boss man. I love my beer. (Joe: please do not fire me.)

And then there’s the stuff it didn’t find. For example, our editor in chief, Joe Brown, has a Facebook account under a different name he uses for close friends who do not want to be subjected to his work-related posts. (And, you know, to avoid annoying publicists who try to friend him.) It’s easily findable if you know his personal email address. We gave that address to Social Intelligence, but it didn’t dig up his aliased account, just his main profile.

It also seems like it helps to have a large Web footprint. Yeah, it found some negative hits. Tip of the iceberg, my man!

There was much more to find buried deep in my Google search results that could have been just as incriminating. Sometimes, on even more than one level.

Plenty more detail in that piece, but to cut a long story short, it’ll be eminently possible to live a fun fulfilling life online and not flunk one of these background checks… although, counterintuitively perhaps, it appears that broadcasting more of your life rather than less of it is one way to help yourself.

But note that SI’s offer is essentially an outsource offer, and – deliberately, thanks to the constrains of certain laws – much more limited than a few hours of Googling an employee by name. A big firm could easily have a dedicated HR drone whose job it was to rake over the pasts of potential applicants for nasty nuggets. Hell, keep their paygrade low enough, and there’ll be plenty of axe-grinding motivation for them to dish the dirt on high-level managerial applicants; few things motivate in a shitty job as powerfully as resentment, after all. Though don’t treat ’em too bad… you wouldn’t want them agitating your own layers of silt, now would you?

(Businesses: if this sounds like a good plan to you, don’t delay, start hiring now! After all, the job market – at least here in the UK – is about to be flooded with people who’ve made a living by digging up the mundane failures and foibles of people’s private lives and exposing them to public scrutiny, so hire now while they’re still cheap! You may even find that a bit of your own research will enable you to apply the very same sort of leverage upon them, too.)

On this side of the pond, meanwhile, the European parliament is trying to enshrine an Eric Shmidt-esque “right to be forgotten” into law. Tessa Mayes remains unimpressed:

we shouldn’t champion a right to be forgotten. Why? For one, it could be used to stifle our culture’s imagination by banning freedom of expression. It could encourage public figures to claim a “right to erase what people say about my sex life”, as some have been trying to do using superinjunctions, and as Max Mosley, whose orgy was exposed in the News of the World, failed to do in the European Court of Human Rights. But that isn’t my main reason. An exemption could be made so it refers only to data processing rather than when your data is talked about.

Neither am I arguing from a technical point of view: that there’s no point in trying to be forgotten online because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve (although technical challenges don’t help).

Instead my argument is political, about the conception of individuals’ power in our society. The right to be forgotten conjures up the idea of a passive, isolated individual, outside of society. This is a figment of an imagination that believes individuals should exist in the shadows and bureaucrats should act as our puppet masters.

By contrast, at the heart of a right to privacy is the conception of us all as engaged citizens. As social beings we interact in public life. However, sometimes we need downtime from it. A right to privacy recognises that a social existence demands a public and a private life, both of which we control.

A remarkably apropos and proleptic piece of writing, considering the events of the last few days here in the UK; I suspect privacy will be a hot topic here for a good few weeks to come, too. But before we sign off on this one, let’s make a call-back to Bill Gibson’s thoughts from last year on making your past unGooglable:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

We adapt. And better still, we don’t even notice ourselves adapting… possibly because we’re too busy panicking about the idea of having to adapt.

[ Cue resurrection of OMG GOOGLE IZ TOO BIG KILL IT WIV FIRE! riff in 5… 4… 3… ]


A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2011

This is a rather excellent essay, and you should go and read it. With all the normal I-am-not-an-economist caveats, Venkatesh Rao’s reading of post-Enlightenment history in terms of the rise and fall of the concept of the corporation is powerful stuff, and – unlike a lot of economics material I’ve read recently – it actually manages to look beyond tomorrow afternoon, albeit with a certain amount of shrugging (I’d much rather have someone admit they’re not sure how something’s going to pan out than dress up a guess as a given). It clocks in at over 7k words (!) so you’ll wanna set aside some time to read the whole thing; I suspect that even those among you who’ll disagree with some of Rao’s mappings will still find plenty of stuff to think about.

But hey, this is Futurismic, and we’re all about the hand-picked excerpts, so here’s a teaser that makes it clear that not only are today’s rapacious and out of control corporations nothing new, but that they’re also pussycats compared to their historical forebears:

The [East India Company] was the original too-big-to-fail corporation. The EIC was the beneficiary of the original Big Bailout. Before there was TARP, there was the Tea Act of 1773 and the Pitt India Act of 1783. The former was a failed attempt to rein in the EIC, which cost Britain the American Colonies.  The latter created the British Raj as Britain doubled down in the east to recover from its losses in the west. An invisible thread connects the histories of India and America at this point. Lord Cornwallis, the loser at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781 during the revolutionary war, became the second Governor General of India in 1786.

But these events were set in motion over 30 years earlier, in the 1750s. There was no need for backroom subterfuge.  It was all out in the open because the corporation was such a new beast, nobody really understood the dangers it represented. The EIC maintained an army. Its merchant ships often carried vastly more firepower than the naval ships of lesser nations. Its officers were not only not prevented from making money on the side, private trade was actually a perk of employment (it was exactly this perk that allowed William Jardine to start a rival business that took over the China trade in the EIC’s old age).  And finally — the cherry on the sundae — there was nothing preventing its officers like Clive from simultaneously holding political appointments that legitimized conflicts of interest. If you thought it was bad enough that Dick Cheney used to work for Halliburton before he took office, imagine if he’d worked there while in office, with legitimate authority to use his government power to favor his corporate employer and make as much money on the side as he wanted, and call in the Army and Navy to enforce his will. That picture gives you an idea of the position Robert Clive found himself in, in 1757.

He made out like a bandit. A full 150 years before American corporate barons earned the appellation “robber.”

Rao’s thesis here is that the corporation – in terms of its power and influence – is actually entering its twilight years as we hit the limits of certain forms of economic growth; as such, I guess we have to view the recent banking crises as one last desperate – and rather savage – grasp for power and influence over a changing world. I certainly hope he’s right… though his concept of “Coasean growth” probably won’t be as appealing a replacement for the status quo for others as it is for me.


Mind Map of the History of Science Fiction

Paul Raven @ 09-03-2011

Does what it says on the tin… and does it gloriously, too. What a super piece of work! Can’t tell you much about it beyond that it’s signed by someone called Ward Shelley (if I’ve read the handwriting correctly)*, and that I saw it via the tweetings of Adam Rothstein and Justin Pickard. Click through for the huge original version, and prepare to lose twenty minutes of your day in sheer wonder.

Mind Map of the History of Science Fiction[ * Addendum: it’s an entry to the seventh iteration of the Places & Spaces: Mapping Science contest, which looks like it contains all sorts of other interesting stuff. ]


Personal atemporal feedback loop

Paul Raven @ 21-02-2011

More fun and games with atemporal media: TwitShift offers a novel service, wherein they hoover up the last year’s worth of output from your Twitter account and repost every tweet on exactly the same day and time as they were posted originally… exactly one year later. [This link via LifeHacker, who aren’t getting their proper attribution links until they provide URLs that are guaranteed to deliver the viewer to the page I actually wanted them to see.]

Atemporal reportage is no new phenomenon, of course; for example, George Orwell has been (re)covering the fall of Europe to the Nazis for some time now, exactly seventy years since it actually happened. But the personal angle of TwitShift is curious, because it highlights a fascination with our own very recent pasts, a growing trend wherein – as the distance we can see into the future with any feeling of confidence decreases – we’re obsessed with building a narrative about how we got to where we are.

There are good and bad sides to this, I think; aphorisms about understanding history and the repetition of mistakes are plentiful, but the problem with looking back over one’s shoulder is that it increases the likelihood of one walking into a lamppost. Given the way my own life was unexpectedly upended by circumstance a year ago, I’m really feeling that tension: it would be interesting to revisit my own experiences with the benefit of hindsight, but I’m not sure how much genuine value I’d get from doing so.

I wonder how much further you could take this idea, though? Multiple atemporal feedback loops at different distances: last week, last month, last year, last decade? Become the sole academic of your own history! Be your own psychological panopticon! The doors of The Hall Of Mirrors are also mirrored! When the road ahead is foggy and strewn with rubble, what better recourse than to remind oneself of earlier successful swerves?


Path dependency is a cultural function, not vice versa

Paul Raven @ 07-02-2011

Via Ken MacLeod, a rebuttal of Neal Stephenson’s theory of path dependency (as mentioned last week):

… the obvious question is why a popular and widely read author [got] his story so wrong, and why so many people believe it now. The answer, of course, is that America, and the developed world, are locked in a path dependent and locked in culture. The reason people believe a randomocity theory of rockets, is because much of our lives are based on relatively random decisions and lock in. So we project backwards. But Adolf Hilter, WSC, FDR, Stalin, were not creatures of the same moment. They had the reverse problem: namely, no one knew what the best technologies were, or the best social structures, to handle a massively disruptive moment.

In otherwords Stephanson is wrong on virtually every point, on every interpretation, but is right about his audience. Allowing them to see the past as making the same mistakes they make in their cubes every day, is an easy way to enormous instant popularity. It’s also a good example of why we are in the mess we are in: people like Stephanson writing for other people like Stephanson about how the weeds are thick and the weeds are somehow aligned against us. No, we are meeting the enemy, and he is us. It isn’t Hitler that is keeping the Ares alive, nor Stalin that is making us build vast banking frauds to prop up demand for suburban homes that aren’t really wanted, nor Truman and Eisenhower who are stopping us from researching fast nuclear power plants. They are de-yad. It must be us.

There’s a second part to come, presumably to explain Stirling Newberry’s antithesis. I’ll be looking out for it…


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