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Sticks and stones may break my bones but inaccurate information could ruin my life

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A while ago in the UK two pieces of information emerged almost simultaneously which caused outrage among consumer groups, child protection agencies, schools and practically everyone who thought about the issue.

University entrance

An Admissions Tutor at a highly prestigious University acknowledged he had looked at the social networking profiles of a number of applicants to his College. MySpace was then in the ascendancy with Bebo and Facebook coming up on the rails. The implication was information obtained in this way might have influenced decisions about who got in that year. I am not going to embarrass the guy further by naming him here. I gather he accepted it was a mistake. Originally the remark might even have been meant as a joke. It's history, but it drew wider attention to a possibility few had considered up to then.

Looking for a job

Hot on the heels of that revelation a survey was published which suggested well over half of all employment agencies were then routinely trawling profiles to see what they could find out about anyone they were considering recommending for interview.

I said at the time

"A world where even a 14-year-old has to think twice before posting an adolescent poem suddenly looks very unappealing and increases the pressure on children and young people to conform to a set of tightly focused adult norms."

It may not be true

Perhaps more to the point you, the recruiter, know that even with information that has come directly from the applicant you have, at the very least, to allow for a degree of exaggeration or spin. Typically this will not cross a line and become a material misrepresentation but there could be shades of it about. This is familiar and well understood territory. However, when information about a person comes from any other source different risks present themselves. If that other source is the internet........

Moreover even if information obtained from the internet was indisputably accurate in the sense that, in the case of a photograph, it depicted an event that definitely took place, might not the context be extremely important? How easy will it sometimes be to understand that context if all you have to go on is what is presented on a web page?

The camera can lie

For example, suppose Jimmy Potter took part in a student production of Mississippi Burning. He wore the uniform of a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A souvenir picture of Jimmy was taken, perhaps to put on a flyer. Jimmy's face is clearly visible, hood tucked underneath his arm. The picture is later posted online. No additional information provided.

Or Jenny Jackson is photographed carrying what appear to be genuine body parts or major organs. How could anyone know they were simply realistic papier-mâché replicas Jenny was transporting from the Arts Room to the Human Anatomy lab where they were going to be part of a display?

If images are accurately tagged with the person's name there is at least a chance of them being discovered. The individual affected may be able to ask that they be removed or properly explained. It's only a chance. Not a certainty. If the pictures were wrongly tagged, even innocently, the problem can rapidly take on nightmare proportions. Lovely Henry Jones is taken for wicked Fred Smith and Henry does not get an interview.

Note I said "even innocently". Let's not go into identity theft or malicious, deliberate misrepresentation and the additional confusions that can cause. Yet another reason to tread with extra care.

Easy to discriminate

I have other reasons for feeling uneasy about these sorts of developments. For one thing having ready access in particular to photos of candidates for jobs or College places makes it very much easier for a malevolent recruiter to pursue certain kinds of discriminatory policies. I appreciate there are lots of other non-visual clues which can help a would-be discriminator locate and eliminate classes of people he or she does not like or locate and promote people he or she prefers, but pictures have a unique immediacy and finality.

If a person's appearance was genuinely an important consideration, for example as in modelling or acting, then it would be different. But there are very few instances where one's looks are truly going to matter that much (said he with feeling and gratitude).

Maybe in larger organizations there will be more controls in place to guard against improper recruitment practices but we're told all the dynamism and growth in modern economies is with smaller enterprises. Either way it would be little consolation to the now unemployed youngster or to the young man or woman who did not win a place at their first choice University, to learn many years later that the person who kept them out had been discovered and nailed.

Sneaky does it

Depressingly, in this not so brave new world, my guess is recruiters will be very likely to play ultra-safe. They will choose people whose online profiles do not display any challenging preferences or hint at any kind of unusual life story. In the end the organizations on whose behalf they are headhunting will be crushed under the dead weight of dull uniformity. That might be a sort of poetic justice, but it's not really in anyone's interests that we get to that in the first place.

Always the optimist I once imagined everyone would realise soon enough what was so obviously wrong with this kind of data mining from the unaccountable and unreliable internet. I believed the practice would be abandoned on a voluntary basis or not taken up in the first place.

Federal Trade Commission gets it wrong

Imagine my surprise, then, when I get a report from a colleague in the USA telling me the FTC has officially sanctioned such methods. It came to light when they released the text of a letter they recently sent to a company called Social Intelligence.

Now the FTC's letter contains a clear direction which requires that

"...agencies...take reasonable steps to ensure the maximum possible accuracy of the information reported from social networking sites. ... agencies must also provide employers who use their ... reports with information about their obligations... such as their obligation to provide employees or applicants with notice of any adverse action taken on the basis of these reports."

It is not enough to be reasonable

Hmmmm. That word reasonable worries me. You must take reasonable steps before you kill someone's dreams? I'd say the standard should be a lot higher than that. Actually I believe this approach to recruitment for anything of importance should probably be banned outright, or at the very least it should be subject to detailed, binding rule to try to ensure injustice does not creep in.

Speed fights fairness

Here is an extract from the home page of Social Intelligence

"Our technology allows us to turn around reports in 24 to 48 hours while still having social media activity about every job applicant manually reviewed. Social Intelligence℠ Hiring presents employers with reports on only employer-defined objectionable material, such as racist remarks or behavior, explicit photos and video, and illegal activity. We flag job candidates associated with negative and positive material, filtering out their "protected class" information and reporting only relevant and desired data. Summary and detail views present easy-to-understand results, with screenshots of pertinent material."

Like me do you find that reference to "within 24 to 48 hours" a little worrying?

You should have to declare it

Will anybody accept my bet that, either before or after the fact, negative data is almost never communicated to or discussed with people who would, otherwise, have been contenders for the job or place in question? Those particular individuals' career hopes or educational ambitions died in cyberspace, or if they were lucky they were only delayed. Let's hope by not too much.

Let's not forget either that the kind of things we are talking about in the context of employment and education could also be extended to the provision of services e.g. the tenancy of a flat or membership of the golf club.

Internet aside, I am very strongly of the view that if an employer or any other organization acting on their own account, or an agency acting for them, proposes to pass on or rely on information obtained from any source other than the applicant or a person with a close and known connection to them e.g. a current or former school teacher or a current or former employer, and that information adversely affects the applicant's interests, the applicant should be notified of this before the damage is done. If it turns out the information is inaccurate the person must be given an opportunity to refute or amend it.

The saga of the bad penny

Otherwise, if the internet was the source, as with an untruthful or inaccurate story that gets into a press cuttings file, there is a risk that the same facts will keep on resurfacing ad infinitum. Everyone will be fishing in the same polluted pool and, surprise surprise, getting the same or very similar polluted answers. A person's life could be blighted in all sorts of ways indefinitely because of something they know nothing about and which they therefore cannot correct. That is not acceptable. We have to find a way of preventing it. There must be useful parallels with the way credit reference agencies operate.

Does this sound like a counsel of perfection? A hopeless pipe dream? I know the internet makes all kinds of things possible but do they all have to become compulsory?

Not a job or a College application

In Europe there is a general rule in data protection law which says you are only allowed to use information for the purpose for which it was originally intended. So let us remind ourselves that, especially when children and young people post on the internet but it's the same with many adults also, they are emphatically not making job or College applications. They are not knowingly providing incriminating evidence to be used against themselves repeatedly at various and multiple indeterminate points in the future.

Normally they are goofing about with their mates. Against this background it is easy to see why the right to be forgotten is such an attractive idea, even if the practicalities of it remain mesmerizingly difficult to describe. There are privacy issues here. There is a question about consent.

Punished forever

Reduced to a simple human level it is plain mean to punish someone, perhaps for the rest of their life, for once having been young and foolish. I have not been able to confirm this but I gather that Social Intelligence only looks at data which is seven years old or less. If that's true I guess that's something but it definitely is not enough.

In the UK and in other countries there are classes of lower order crimes which, eventually, become spent. Here is a quote from a UK police web site.

"A spent conviction is a conviction which, under the terms of Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, can be effectively ignored after a specified amount of time. The amount of time for rehabilitation depends on the sentence imposed, not on the offence. This Act aims to rehabilitate offenders by not making their past mistakes affect the rest of their lives if they have been on the right side of the law for some time. This means that a person who has spent convictions does not have to disclose the conviction to prospective employers, and employers cannot refuse to employ someone on the basis of spent convictions."

The kinds of recruitment practices referred to earlier therefore risk making mistakes made on the internet harder to shake off than evidence of crimes. That cannot be right.

The internet has its uses

By all means use the internet as a source of seemingly positive information to give you a larger potential pool of applicants or members. However, as a source of negative information which you cannot or will not confirm or be able to check directly with the person concerned it should be a no no in all but the most obvious cases. These obvious cases should be defined and codified by an authoritative body with the power to inspect and enforce them if necessary..

Laws of defamation provide a guide

In the law of defamation in the UK if, through mere repetition, you knowingly or recklessly publish defamatory information about someone, you are potentially liable. Quite right too. Answer: unless you have very good grounds for believing something that reflects badly on someone is true, don't repeat it. Don't pass it on.

As I have already said, I appreciate I may well be advancing a counsel of perfection. Consequently for the time being we have to assume most employment recruiters and probably some Admissions Tutors will keep on looking. Thus, at least for now, we must continue to get across to everyone who uses the internet how important it is to be careful about what they post, both about themselves and others. Even if they post to what they think is a closed or private group they can never be completely certain that someone won't copy it and put it elsewhere, somewhere it was never meant to be.

On that melancholy note......