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

Hiding in plain sight: social steganography

Paul Raven @ 26-08-2010

There’s always room for another compound neologism! Via Bruce Schneier, Danah Boyd on social steganography:

Carmen is engaging in social steganography. She’s hiding information in plain sight, creating a message that can be read in one way by those who aren’t in the know and read differently by those who are. She’s communicating to different audiences simultaneously, relying on specific cultural awareness to provide the right interpretive lens. While she’s focused primarily on separating her mother from her friends, her message is also meaningless to broader audiences who have no idea that she had just broken up with her boyfriend. As far as they’re concerned, Carmen just posted an interesting lyric.

Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.

And in doing so, make Google CEOs look surprisingly clueless.

(Incidentally, Schneier does this, too; most people who aren’t sf fans don’t know that Schneier’s an sf fan, but he leaves little Easter Eggs from time to time if you know what to look for.)

Futurismic (finally) on Twitter

Paul Raven @ 01-08-2010

Yeah, I know, some cutting-edge futurist organ, this one – blighters ain’t even on Twitter yet, are they? Sheesh.

Well, now they are – so please follow @futurismic for the latest updates from the site, occasional editorial rants, links to cool stuff that we didn’t have time to write a full post about, and hell knows what else. Also, if you have a tip for something you think would make a good Futurismic post, please consider Twitter a fast and convenient channel for sending ’em in. We always hat-tip our tipsters, too.

So, you ready for some fresh fiction tomorrow? Yeah, I thought so… 🙂

SocNets and nation-states: a comparison

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2010

Via Bruce Sterling, a piece at The Economist compares Facebook’s population and social character to that of a nation-state:

In some ways, it might seem absurd to call Facebook a state and Mr Zuckerberg its governor. It has no land to defend; no police to enforce law and order; it does not have subjects, bound by a clear cluster of rights, obligations and cultural signals. Compared with citizenship of a country, membership is easy to acquire and renounce. Nor do Facebook’s boss and his executives depend directly on the assent of an “electorate” that can unseat them. Technically, the only people they report to are the shareholders.

But many web-watchers do detect country-like features in Facebook. “[It] is a device that allows people to get together and control their own destiny, much like a nation-state,” says David Post, a law professor at Temple University. If that sounds like a flattering description of Facebook’s “groups” (often rallying people with whimsical fads and aversions), then it is worth recalling a classic definition of the modern nation-state. As Benedict Anderson, a political scientist, put it, such polities are “imagined communities” in which each person feels a bond with millions of anonymous fellow-citizens. In centuries past, people looked up to kings or bishops; but in an age of mass literacy and printing in vernacular languages, so Mr Anderson argued, horizontal ties matter more.

Sterling himself describes it as “handwavey and misleading”, but there’s a core of pertinence: huge horizontal networks of people, disconnected from geographical restraints, with the potential for a self-sustaining internal economy. Facebook couldn’t play on the world stage just yet, but it’s early in the day for the network-as-collective-entity… and late in the evening for the nation-state.

Diaspora: open-source distributed Facebook equivalent

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before (as it’s an idea I predicted in rudimentary form for an article in Focus back in 2007, and I’m hardly at the cutting edge of web software thinking), but the Facebook privacy backlash has prompted a small gang of geeks to build an open-source distributed social network platform that gives you back full control over your personal data [via MetaFilter].

Diaspora is intended to be installed on a webserver, with every installation serving as a node in a peer-to-peer network – a complete reversal of the centralised model that Facebook and similar systems currently work on. Most of the current objections I’m seeing hinge on the fact that the majority of SocNet users don’t yet have their own server and domain name, and aren’t technologically able to maintain one themselves: the former is a matter of cost, and the price of webhosting is falling constantly; the latter is a matter of demand, and the turnkey installation scripts for software like WordPress which are available from many bargain basement hosting outfits suggests that, if the demand increases, the barriers to entry will lower rapidly.

That said, not everyone cares about their privacy online. Whether that matters or not is a debate for another time, but while the situation persists, the free-to-use no-technological-hassle SocNets will always have the upper hand in the casual user sphere. If Diaspora is to succeed, it’ll have to demonstrate tangible advantages over the competition in addition to the more abstract USP plus-points of enhanced privacy.

Fingers crossed… although, as science fiction fans, I think we should all get behind a piece of software that shares a name with a Greg Egan novel. 😉

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