FTC Declares Facebook Content is Fair Game for Background Checks: The Social Media Privacy Report


A one-year old startup company, Social Intelligence Corporation, makes it it’s business to know what you are have done and are currently doing on Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and other social networking sites. Of course, the company isn’t scouring the Internet and invading your online privacy for its own uses. Instead, Social Intelligence has clients – some are even the big guys, like Fortune 500 companies – that pay for social media background checks on potential hires and even current employees.

Is This Legal?

Yes! Just this week, the FTC, after a yearlong investigation of the company, declared that Social Intelligence complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, as was reported by Forbes. The company makes sure that its clients inform potential job seekers that their online social footprint is being researched. They must also indicate to the applicant whether the results of the background check negatively impacted their chances of being employed.

How a Background Check Happens

So what exactly occurs when Social Intelligence does a background check on you? Kashmir Hill from Forbes gives a close examination of the process. Below are some highlights that you should be aware of if you are concerned about your privacy.

  • Social Intelligence requires a job applicant to sign a permission form before a background check begins. While the company was being investigated by the FTC, it modified the language of this form to make the description of the process more transparent; it also includes a few examples of what information might be included in the search.
  • Once the search is completed, Social Intelligence provides the applicant with a copy of the report; the investigated party is then given the opportunity to challenge the legitimacy the findings. This also gives the job seeker a chance to see what is on the web that is hindering his or her employment opportunities. According to Forbes, the COO of the company, Geoffrey Andrews, claims that no one has ever challenged their findings.
  • Social Intelligence keeps the data found in their background checks in a file for up to seven years! At first, Forbes, in a different article, found this rather alarming. However, Andrews clarified that while “bad” findings are kept on record, they are not reused if a new client wants another background done on you. He stated, “Per our policies and obligations under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, we run new reports on applicants on each new search to ensure the most accurate and up-to-date information is utilized, and we store the information to maintain a verifiable chain-of-custody in-case the information is ever needed for legal reasons.”
  • The company also monitors the current employees of some clients to make sure they are not disclosing confidential information, partaking in professional misconduct or illegal activity. Andrew does note that Social Intelligence will only provide this service to clients that have a social media policy enacted with its employees and that it will not monitor former employees.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

It seems that Social Intelligence has the ability to know anything about anyone with a social media account. One important aspect to note is that the company cannot provide a report on information that is not for the public eye. This means if you want to protect yourself you can change your privacy settings. For tips of making your Facebook profile secure, read our guide to the site’s security settings.

According to Andrews, there are also certain boundaries that the company will not cross. While doing the background check, there are certain things that the findings do not report, such as religion, martial status and sexuality. He also noted that one client wanted Social Intelligence to check up on applicants and their sexual preferences; the company refused.

If you are wondering what Social Intelligence is finding, Forbes reported some statistics. Only 20% of candidates they screen pop a red flag with a negative report. Some of these negatives have included applicants trying to buy Oxycontin on Craigslist or another posing in a picture with multiple firearms. The other applicants have a neutral or positive report. Another interesting thing to note: included in the reports are not just the bad things. For example, if a potential candidate won an award or did something good which was broadcasted online via a social network, this is also included the report.

It is scary to think that the private information that you have posted on social networks can appear in your background check and hinder your job search. Do you think that Social Intelligence is crossing the line into private lives? Or do you think it is the user’s responsibility to protect his own personal information disseminated on social networks?

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Jillian Ryan

Jillian Ryan is PRIVATE WiFi's Director, Brand Communications and Social Strategy. With a passion for writing, the web, and fast-paced information exchanged via social networks, Jillian is also concerned about the ramifications of putting your life details and personal data into cyberspace. Follow her on Twitter: @Writing_Jillian.

3 Responses

  1. October 21, 2011

    […] out users , new features like the ticker and subscriptions and Facebook content being used for background checks. Yet despite Facebook’s reputation for pushing the envelope in terms of online privacy and […]

  2. March 24, 2012

    […] online is not necessarily “fair game” for employers and recruiters. Every applicant has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Coercing or […]

  3. March 25, 2012

    […] online is not necessarily “fair game” for employers and recruiters. Every applicant has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Coercing or […]

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