In cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream


Way back when, the producers of the classic horror film Alien came up with a clever advertising catchphrase: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

But that’s not the case in cyberspace, wherever you scream, rant, or photograph is fair game for employers.

By now everyone knows that Google searches have become routine for the folks who vet job applicants. But now there’s a Santa Barbara company — Social Intelligence Corporation [SIC] — that specializes in tracking down applicants through their posts on Facebook, blogs, Craigslist, and Tweets.

SIC CEO Max Drucker told the Santa Barbara Independent back in December that

“the genie is out of the bottle as far as social networking goes, and it’s never going back in. If you Google someone you can find out lots of information about them that’s federally protected in relation to claims of discrimination—marital status, religion, medical history, etc. What we guarantee is that the employer will only be exposed to those things that come up in a search that are appropriate for them to consider, and that we will screen them from the types of information about a potential hire that could put them in line for a discrimination suit.”

Just what kind of data do they collect? Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill writes that

Social Intelligence had sent me some of the reports they’ve provided to employers so far, including a job applicant who had a photo on a social networking site that featured multiple guns and a sword, and another who was designated racist for joining the Facebook group, “I shouldn’t have to press 1 for English. We are in the United States. Learn the language.” Social Intelligence’s “negative” findings will stay in the files of Workplace-Shooting-Waiting-To-Happen and No-Hablo-Espanol for seven years per the requirements of FCRA, though new employers who run searches through Social Intelligence won’t have access to the materials if they are completely removed from the Internet.

Alison Doyle of About.com notes that the company also

searches the deep web – web pages incapable of being discovered by searching through a conventional search engine like Google or Bing. This includes some university, academic, government, and private databases unavailable to the general public. Information gathered from these sources isn’t as readily available as information that shows up in standard searches.

The company conducts new searches each time an applicant’s name is submitted, and doesn’t use material gathered on earlier searches — which at least gives applicants the chance to scrub their posts, though we presume data saved in Google and other searches engine caches would still be available to the company.

Fiona Roberts of the London Daily Mail adds more detail:

The reports only take into account ‘job-threatening’ characteristics – such as criminal activity – and does not include personal information, such as sexuality or religion, which an employee legally cannot see.

Applicants can also dispute the report’s findings, and the offending record will be deleted if it is found to be incorrect.

So there you have it, the latest incarnation of the Internet as an implement of social control. In a time when jobs are scarce, folks have good reason to fear that a full and free expression of their thoughts and ideas can be a dangerous thing indeed.

Who’s to judge what’s “dangerous”?

According to Drucker, the company searches for four specific “dangerous” themes:

  • Racially insensitive remarks
  • Sexually explicit materials
  • Flagrant displays of weaponry
  •  Other demonstrations of clearly illegal activity

Consider the fellow with all those guns and swords cited as an example of outrageous conduct by the company.

We grew up in Kansas and Colorado, and once owned a few guns and swords, though most were family heirlooms [two Knights Templar Masonic swords, two Civil War sabres, a muzzle-loading Kentucky rifle, our father’s deer rifle, and a couple of heirloom shotguns]. Would posting photos of them have made us ineligible for hiring? What about the picture our mother took of a 10-year-old esnl, shotgun in one hand and our first and only pheasant in the other?

And look at this example of a negative report, where working on a campaign for marijuana legalization appears as an indicator of possible illegal activity.[And yes, the other two Craigslist postings are downright stupid.]

At least with SIC files, the job applicant has a right to examine the company’s findings.

The deeper truth is that we live at a time when corporations and governments have easy access to our deepest and darkest thoughts as revealed in the information we gleefully and often thoughtlessly post.

Just knowing that all-seeing eyes and all-hearing ears are monitoring what we say and do has a powerful inhibitory effect, especially for those who are looking for work in an era when jobs have become scarce indeed.

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