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… ]


Narrative warfare: Operation Sockpuppet

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2011

It’s all coming out about Operation Sockpuppet, sorry, Operation Earnest Voice, the Pentagon’s online psyops software grab (which lends a certain level of extra credence to that HuffPo analysis of the HBGary fallout, of which I said at the time ‘my first reaction to reading that piece was “what took them so long?”’ – sometimes being right is no fun at all). I’ll look forward to the concise explanation of how this is totally different to the sort of state espionage upon civilians that goes on in China (which I expect will boil down to “it’s bad because it’s Them doing it”).

But you’ve little cause for alarm, as it’s honestly only going to be used on brown people who speak funny:

Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”

He said none of the interventions would be in English, as it would be unlawful to “address US audiences” with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.

Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks, CentCom; it’s very comforting to take your word for it! Certainly more comforting than, ah, not doing so.

My favourite paragraph from the Guardian piece linked is this one, though (emphasis mine):

This month Petraeus’s successor, General James Mattis, told the same committee that OEV “supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities”.

That’s pretty much an open admission that modern warfare is fought with stories for weapons. Granted, a close reading of history will show you that’s always been the case, but the internet provides unprecedented new opportunities for weaponizing narrative… which means we need to wrestle ownership of the world’s narrative back from those who want to write hackneyed and blood-spattered rise-of-the-Roman-Empire stories over and over again.


Do you want to know a secret? Social steganography

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

Blah blah blah, the intertubes are eroding literacy, kids these days have poor communication skills, blah. Well, if we keep measuring those skills using old metrics, it’s bound to look that way… but kids (a definition that in this instance I’d consider expanding to “web natives”, a demographic that can extend into the younger end of Gen-X, if not further) are actually very sophisticated communicators, primarily because they’re adapting fast to the fact that a lot of their personal communication occurs in publicly-accessible spaces like Facebook. When your mum (or your boss) can be keeping an eye on your wall (or your Twitter stream), you sometimes have to code your updates so that they’re only comprehensible to their intended recipients. And what better an encryption key than your shared cultural references?

Posting lyrics to communicate your mood is one of the most common social steganographic tricks, because teens are fluent in pop culture in a way their parents aren’t. What teenagers are doing reminds me of Washington’s “dog whistle” politics, in which politicians deliver speeches that sound bland but are laden with meaning aimed at their base. For instance, Republican kingmaker Lee Atwater used to advise candidates to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “forced busing” to incite racial fears among white voters without actually using offensive language.

Obviously, one could regard the emergence of youth steganography as yet more depressing evidence of how dangerously overcomplex the web has made teens’ lives. But frankly, I’m kind of awed by the rhetorical sophistication of today’s teens. They are basically required to live in public (you try maintaining friendships without an online presence), but they crave some privacy, too. So they’ve taught themselves to hack language. They hack systems, as well: [Danah] Boyd has also found teenagers who “deactivate” their Facebook account when they log off so nobody can see their stuff or post comments. Then they “reactivate” it when they want to go back online and interact with friends. Presto: They create a virtual club where they control the operating hours. Color me impressed.

I’m tempted to see this as a reappropriation of a (virtual) social space by a generation that increasingly has little access to (physical) social space, though that’s doubtless either an oversimplification of the case or a fractional component of what’s actually happening.

But I think the important thing here is that young people will always find a way to do what young people have always done: distance themselves from the adult-mediated social sphere that they feel oppresses them (c’mon, every kid feels that way, even if it isn’t necessarily true), and create a new space to populate with their own argot, their own ideas and values. Of course, if you’ve always felt intimidated by kids and their weird ways, that’ll be cold comfort… but to me it’s a clear sign that we’re not losing anything essential about our human-ness to the web, we’re just finding new ways to enact it.


Genevieve Valentine on the future shape of social media

Paul Raven @ 04-01-2011

Super-awesome science fiction webzine LightSpeed has a non-fiction piece from Futurismic veteran Genevieve Valentine (“Is This Your Day To Join The Revolution?”), who looks into the imminent future of even-more-ubiquitous social networking. I’m not sure I quite agree with her template for excellence, though:

But frankly, an ideal template for the future of software responsiveness is actually already here: Apple’s App Store. The Store itself is a social network of user-generated content that provides both marketing and moneymaking opportunities (a holy trinity of market appeal). Populated by techies for techies, the App Store contains single-click download options for other platforms (Twitter, Tumblr), market-friendly apps (entertainment-blog feeds, Yelp) and even reference guides (sky maps, bird-call encyclopedias).

[…]

In some ways, it’s a comfort to see the emergence of technology that supports a concept rather than a user; the App Store technology has spread to other smartphone platforms, and the idea of individual, crowd-sourced utilities is the sort of technology that, because of its immediacy and flexibility, could develop smoothly as the years go by, until the next thing you know it’s the future, and social networking is easier than ever before. Right?

I suspect my objection hinges on an aspect that Genevieve wasn’t considering, but even so: if Apple’s App Store is the shape of the future, then the future will be a walled garden full of things that Apple has deemed safe, suitable and sanitised for our consumption.

In the Apple future, you won’t be able to read material from Wikileaks, or stories with cuss-words, or graphic novels with gay themes (whether in an explicitly erotic context or otherwise). Apple’s App Store decides what’s best for you, and limits your choices accordingly; it’s the gated community of the post-geographical web. That’s comforting to many people, which is fair enough; personally, I think I’ll outsource my content curation over a wide range of unfettered independent channels. Maintaining your own filters is harder work, sure, but it means you know what’s coming through and what’s getting turned back at the borders.

And as for technologies that support concepts rather than users… well, give me the user support every time. 🙂

I suspect Genevieve’s praise is directed more at the basic concept of “the app store” (uncapitalized, non-proprietary): a marketplace where all manner of useful things can be found. On that basis, I agree: we already have the ability to search for content, and app store systems allow us to search for functionality in the same way.

But I expect it’ll surprise no one when I say I think the ideal social media of the future will be built spontaneously from multiple platforms and networks, created and reformed on an ad hoc basis according to the needs and interests of its users from moment to moment. It is to be hoped, then, that open alternatives to the corporate solutions will remain available; the best way to ensure that they do so is to find them, use them and support them.


OMG intarweb litricy FAIL

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

It’s been a while since we’ve had one of these, but they never entirely go out of fashion: the English Spelling Society commissions a report and finds that (gasp!) Facebook and chatrooms and forums and texting and stuff are encouraging children to spell words incorrectly!

Now, to be fair, I fully expect they’ve got a dataset tucked away that supports that statement, and I’m not going to try and claim that internet communication has no influence over the way young people use language. However, I find it unlikely that the English Spelling Society would have published a report that said the internet was making no difference to literacy at all, in the same way we’re unlikely to see a memo from the Discovery Institute saying “actually, nix all that earlier stuff, these fossils are pretty damned convincing after all!” Caesar hears what is pleasing to Caesar, after all.

And then there’s the research that claims exactly the opposite, and points out that while most people’s spelling and grammar may not be perfect, the rise of the internet and the infinite number of channels for text-based communication it provides mean that we’re writing far more than we ever did before. Granted, that writing may not conform to Victorian-era ideals of “correct” communication, but the world has changed a lot since those ideals were enshrined; surely communication should be assessed on how effective it is in each given circumstance? Maybe I’m being overly Darwinian about this, but it strikes me that communication methods which didn’t communicate effectively wouldn’t have much chance to get traction in a fast-moving culture like ours.

Or, to put it another way: the kids spell funny because that works for them, and I suspect the horror this produces in older generations of linguists is at least partly to do with feeling shut out by this new linguistic shift, much like the flashes of paranoia one experiences in restaurants and bars abroad where you momentarily think everyone is talking about you in a language you can’t follow clearly*. “Street slang” has always been touted as a symptom of imminent societal collapse (again, at least as far back as the Victorian era, as far as I know)… but here we still are, inflating the sphere of human knowledge despite the kids using weird words and improper spellings. Go figure, AMIRITEZ?

And lets not forget that spellings and pronunciations have never basked in some arcadian stasis, solid and immovable against culture’s fluxing tides; look back just a few hundred years, and you’ll see a language so different to today’s that it seems almost laughable due to its unfamiliarity. Language changes, and it changes through being used. That’s not something to fear; in fact, it’s probably something to celebrate.

[ * OK, that may just be me, then. ]


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