Outsourced Social Media Background Checks Come Under Fire

Nick Fishman

Well we knew it was only a matter of time until the practice of outsourcing social media background checks encountered intense scrutiny.  To their credit, the folks at Social Intelligence managed to quell concerns from the FTC.  However, Senators Al Franken and Richard Blumenthal are clearly not convinced that this practice is legal.

And while I know this isn’t going to be fun for SI, I do think that the inquiry and subsequent findings will provide us all with a road map of what is to come.  Here is an excerpt of the joint letter that has sent by the senators.

We are writing to request information about the business practices of Social Intelligence Corporation as they relate to personal privacy. We are concerned that your company’s collection of online and social media information about job applicants and distribution of that information to potential employers may contain inaccurate information, invade consumers’ right to privacy online, violate the terms of service agreements of the websites from which your company culls data, and infringe upon intellectual property rights.

Your company bills itself as “a background screening service that enables employers to navigate the complicated landscape of social media with clear, consistent, and insightful results.” According to sample background reports published in the media, information is collected from applicants’ profiles on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, personal websites, and other online information sources that Social Intelligence Corporation matches to applicants. We are concerned that there are numerous scenarios under which a job applicant could be unfairly harmed by the information your company provides to an employer. We are also concerned that your company’s business practices may in some cases violate the law.

They then ask for a response to a boat load of questions concerning their practices which can be found at Norwalk.com Now, many of these questions are easily answered.  However there are a few that will be worth hearing responses to.  Particularly, the following:

1. The reports that your company prepares for employers contain screenshots of the sources of the information your company compiles. One publicly available report contains pictures of a user’s Facebook profile, LinkedIn profile, blog posts for a previous employer, and personal websites. These websites are typically governed by terms of service agreements that prohibit the collection, dissemination, or sale of users’ content without the consent of the user and/or the website. LinkedIn’s user agreement, for example, states that one may not “rent, lease, loan, trade, sell/re-sell access to LinkedIn or any information therein, or the equivalent, in whole or in part.” Your company’s business model seems to necessitate violating these agreements. Does your company operate in compliance with the agreements found on sites whose content your company compiles and sells? If so, how?

2. More troubling than the apparent disregard of these websites’ terms of service are what appear to be significant violations of users’ intellectual property rights to control the use of the content that your company collects and sells. Your company includes pictures in its background reports; example reports have included a picture depicting the subject holding a gun to illustrate alleged “potentially violent behavior.” These pictures, taken from sites like Flickr and Picasa, are often licensed by the owner for a narrow set of uses, such as noncommercial use only or a prohibition on derivative works. Does your company obtain permission from the owners of these pictures to use, sell, or modify them?

Keep in mind that an inquiry is just that.  Perhaps SI’s response will satisfy their curiosity.  Unfortunately, right or wrong, I have a feeling that these inquiries are only the sign of things to come.  Stay tuned.

Nick Fishman
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Nick Fishman

Nick Fishman is the co-founder of EmployeeScreenIQ, a leading, global employment background screening provider, and serves as the company’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer. He pioneered the creation of EmployeeScreen University, the #1 educational resource on employment background checks for human resources, security and risk management professionals. A recognized industry expert, Nick is a frequent author, presenter and contributor to the news media. Nick is also a licensed private investigator in the states of Ohio and Texas.
Nick Fishman
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