Background Checks Part II – discrimination, privacy, accuracy and compliance

As a professional, many of us are troubled by the notion that we may be judged by our actions, our history, our lifestyle, or the people we associate with.

In some cases we go through great lengths to create separation between our personal or public lives, even creating multiple silos within our personal and professional lives to create harmony and goodwill in our conversation.

Using myself as a personal example: I am the person who can have almost any conversation on almost any topic. I have a thick skin that is supported by a multi-faceted personality with humor, morality, and respect at its core. I have had the benefit of dealing with life and death crisis situations, personal tragedy, and industry changing business problems. With that said, I can talk to almost anyone on any subject. I know when to admit to things I do not know, and when to ask the hard questions.

The social media world creates a strange track history of my interactions with these conversations. I have a personal poetry site that doesn’t have a thing to do with my business life, and like every other person: my friends have a myriad of personal beliefs.

With such a varied personal and professional background, the web audience at large could dig into any particular silo and eventually find something they do not agree with… but they can also see a breadth of experience.

Social Business Models 100

Like everyone else, I have a family and friends. For the most part I have made a conscious effort to keep these two groups separate, but I also carefully make introductions and referrals based on personal experience and my relationships.

The web attempts to strip my ability to make these connections consciously, instead running me through a gambit of automated introductions and “what if scenarios”

You can see examples on sites like Facebook and Linkedin where they suggest people you may know or what friends you have in common. They are attempting to replace our choice to make introductions or connections based upon the “web vampire effect” where these sites need to increase the size of the community to drive ad revenue or business goals.

The vampire effect (the need for these sites to grow and make money) requires that they leverage the invisible web of information that connects us. This information is often something we do not typically perceive as web users (it includes extra data sources: like cookies, visit duration/route, type of device, 3rd party records, etc.)

Privacy 101

With the presence of the invisible web, companies like Google, Facebook, Linkedin, Amazon, Twitter, and many news sites collect tremendous amounts of data regarding who we are and what we do. If you can imagine the problem of credit card companies selling your contact information to questionable junk mail companies in the 90’s, you can multiply this problem 100x and begin to realize the core problem.

Your data is worth something to someone.

This means that there is an inherent conflict of interest: even free sites want your data.

With 500+ million users on Facebook and with Google seeing billions of searches every month, the data that connects your social life to actions occurring in both your personal and professional lives is quickly identifiable. As employers and as employees, the data that connects our location to our actions is increasingly available with GPS enabled mobile devices.

Example 1: your company pays for a mobile device to be on your person. Does the company have the right to monitor your calls? what about the photos you take? or know where the phone unit was every minute of the day (you do realize that most modern cell phones have the ability to track where we went to lunch.)

Example 2: Speaking of lunch, what if the invisible web connected me to the people I had lunch with? If my phone and your phone are both in the same restaurant and we both friended each other on Facebook: someone would probably assume that we ate lunch together even if neither of us disclosed it.

Accuracy 102

Assumptions are running wild in the “land of Web 2.0”

Unlike criminal court hearings, most of us do not take the time to do thorough investigations of the information we have access to. If we do commit time to research, many of us make the mistake of inappropriately using free services like Google to find information that is incorrect, misunderstood, or even fraudulent.

With the nature of the web, sites like Google and Yahoo regurgitate information in a very automated fashion that is fraught with errors. These errors are magnified by the nature of the web user looking for new information and by companies trying to profit from it: companies want to claim some information, convince they have something you want, collect more information about you, and then recycle the whole information asset back into the meat grinder of Web 2.0

Example: you meet someone in real life and want to know more about them. You turn to Google and search for their name. Google presents you with ten pieces of information in an attempt to garner your interest, while selling advertising to some company attempting to sell a background report on the person to you. At this point Google has already made money (they are selling ads) and the company trying to sell the background check has two money making options: a) sell you a background check or b) collect information about you as a web user and sell that information to someone.

Discrimination 101

At what point does this digitally available information become acceptable for use?

We all have odd little portions of personal history. Whether we have a friend that has a questionable point of view or happen to have been in a photo that ended up on the web, if you dig into anyone’s past you are bound to find something that makes you raise an eyebrow.

Knowing that information found online has questionable accuracy when given little research or bad methodology, at what point do we allow ourselves to make choices about a person or business based upon the impressions we have of them via Google or some background check service?

Compliance 301
Is it ethical or even legal?

This entirely depends on who you are and what actions you take with the information you found. Sometimes asking the wrong question is illegal (for instance, an employer asking about religious or sexual preference) while other situations require that you ask a lot of questions for all the right reasons (such as an elementary school screening for legal issues or sexual predators.)

There is a passionate debate in the human resource and legal fields about hiring managers, recruiters, supervisors, and employees using digital information to make business decisions: the variety and severity of the acceptance and adoption of these questions define  a “disaster waiting to happen.”

For business professionals that are defining social media policies, I suggest you think about these words

  • discrimination
  • privacy
  • accuracy
  • compliance

For individuals, think on these concepts

  • job security
  • career advancement
  • first impressions


As someone who has a background in competitive research, digital identity, and recruiting….. one of my greatest concerns revolves around the mass adoption of web users making important choices based on poor information and no research process.

In the past year this topic has come to my attention dozens of times in the form of professionals needing help with incorrect information, slander and negative PR from competitive businesses online, human resource issues in recruiting, or employment terminations that were caused for the wrong reasons.

As more and more information about our lives becomes digitally available, every one of us has the responsibility to understand how this information can be used for us and against us.

What are your thoughts on the matter?