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Promiscuous online culture and the vetting process

Social networks, and the big data to analyze them, will forever change how we vet candidates, whether for security clearance, employment, or political office. Technology can help employers check candidates' backgrounds, monitor their behavior once hired, and protect their online reputations. But using the social tracks we share -- and what we omit -- has important ethical and legal consequences.

Gov 2.0 Expo 2010According to CareerBuilder, 45 percent of applicants were screened in this way in 2009 — up from 22 percent the year before — regardless of legality. Seventy-four percent of Americans between 18 and 34 have an account on Facebook or MySpace, according to a Harris poll. At the intersection of promiscuous online culture and easy access to search lies a world where it's impossible to hide. And these days, you look suspicious for trying, or even forgetting something innocently.

This changes the vetting process. What once took days of phone calls and pages of forms can be done with a few clicks — whether you're a government, an employer, a reporter, or a terrorist cell. Now that the Library of Congress is archiving every Tweet, ever, your past is a matter of permanent public record.

The state of national security clearance

In the U.S. government, candidates for national security positions must complete Standard Form 86 (SF-86). It collects a wide range of information, and it's the starting point for an investigation into your background.

A public online life won't replace a questionnaire entirely. But doing some basic analysis of an applicant's social network can pre-populate much of the form. How much of your digital persona should be considered in an investigation? And how will processes like those surrounding SF-86 change in a world where applicants' lives are lived in public, online?

One hint at what the vetting of candidates in a connected world might look like is the Obama campaign's questionnaire required of all political appointees. In addition to more traditional background questions, it asks for:

  • All blog posts, comments, and speeches you've made.
  • All emails, text messages, and instant messages that could suggest a conflict of interest or public source of embarrassment.
  • The URLs of any sites that feature you in a personal or professional capacity.
  • All of the aliases you've used online.

Why we screen applicants

Each of us has plenty of reasons to check someone's background before entrusting them with important matters or our endorsements:

  • We care about their identity. Are they who they claim to be?
  • We want to examine their background to identify past embarrassments.
  • Their past can help predict whether they'll do what we expect in the future<./li>
  • Once they're on board, we want to track their ongoing activity to identify security breaches as soon as possible and detect anomalies.

Peer-reviewed identity in the era of open social graphs is a game changer. Consider, for example, the work involved in creating a false identity today: Photoshopping childhood pictures, friending complete strangers, maintaining multiple distinct Twitter feeds, and checking in from several cities. It's enough to make Bond retire.

What assisted clearance would look like

Background clearance systems might be used at all stages of the employment process: screening applicants at the outset to speed the discovery process and find inconsistencies; tracking employees to decide whether clearance should be revoked; and protecting reputation by flagging and mitigating risky online relationships or disclosures.

The ethical implications

Hiring is heavily regulated to ensure fair, equitable consideration of candidates. For example, if credit bureau derogatory data is used to disqualify a candidate, this must be revealed to the job seeker so it can be disputed. A similar model might be used for employment decisions based on publicly available social network data (e.g., statements by someone with the same name, yet a different person). If employers rely on social networks, they may be creating processes that disadvantage the part of the population that isn't using social media. In other words, you can't discriminate against someone just because they're off the grid.

A life lived in public changes the law, too. Onus probandi — the burden of proof — is the foundation of our legal system. In criminal proceedings, the burden is on the accuser, who must demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. For civil cases, the test is less rigorous. But in a recorded, shared world, the absence of records may be enough to sway a jury reared on Facebook or to throw suspicion on someone. In the court of public opinion, we're increasingly expected to live our lives in public, and being too private is a slippery slope toward an admission of guilt.

When records are abundant and analysis is cheap, the line between a background check and a replay of our lives will be blurry at best. As that happens, we need to establish ethical and legal guidelines for dealing with the change.

Note: The upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo will include a session that expands on many of the topics raised in this post.

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