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News

Backgroundchecking.com outlines social networking dangers

Backgroundchecking.com : 25 September, 2007  (Technical Article)
According to Backgroundchecking.com, the use of social networking sites could impede career progression
The increasing popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook has recently raised concerns about identity theft, but another worrying aspect is the potential for site content to jeopardise career prospects of users.
With a rise in online searches as a method of employee screening by prospective employers, personal information, images, flippant comment and messages are still being uploaded without a second thought, with both short term and long term implications.

Steve Bailey, managing director at BackgroundChecking.com, highlights the significance of detrimental information on the web, its accessibility, outlines tips on areas to consider when using these sites, aspects to avoid and provides practical advice on how to correct your actions if necessary.

Social networking sites have had plenty of press coverage recently and initial stories looking at this modern communication phenomenon in a positive light have now given way to more negative press. Recently details of onsite advertising being pulled, the cost to businesses of site usage during working hours, the impact of negative comments made about businesses and employers checking out potential new recruits online are just a few stories to have made the headlines.

Though the use of such sites could leave users open to the more widely recognised threats of identity theft, organised crime and opportunistic fraud, it is the recognition that site content is starting to jeopardise some future career prospects that has been particularly significant. In fact, the more recent story about a candidate's flippant comments made on a social networking site costing him a lucrative job offer, simply reinforced the warnings the employee screening industry has been shouting about for some time.

Internet searches are bringing a whole new dimension to evaluating the suitability of job applicants, providing valuable insight into the personality of a candidate who has consented to background checks. Social networking sites now form a large part of these internet searches and have proved equally beneficial to potential employers. Yet, users do not seem to be giving sufficient consideration to the fact that messages written in jest, criticism of current or previous employers, information given to 'friends' they are associated with (but may not know particularly well), and personal photos, interests and details are subsequently in the public domain, and could jeopardise their future career prospects.

It is thought that such sites will play an integral part in the future of online and media searches for candidates, and will increasingly be used as a standard element of the screening process. Though the intention will be to search for general information, it will inevitably be used to also identify activists who would be detrimental to a prospective employers' business and their reputation!

Europe does not have the same freedom of information culture as is found in the US, which has resulted in social networking sites providing a useful insight into gaps in information history. Online profiles can often provide a good record of personal successes, as well as a much truer insight to an individual's character than is often displayed on conventional job application forms or CVs. Given the richness of this information there is little wonder why online searches are increasingly being carried out on potential employees. Importantly however, it is worth noting that online searches don't always result in an offer being withdrawn or a candidate dismissed from the recruitment procedure; positive character reinforcement could help seal the deal for the right applicant!

The more confirmation the internet provides on positive candidate history, the better it is likely to be for future employment and lifestyle decisions (for example mortgages and lending etc). An online profile confirming a well rounded individual, displaying evidence of work experience, charitable enterprise work, fundraising or sport and hobby activities can only help to secure future employment applications when sought through Internet searches.

Importantly however, all web-active individuals should be aware that creating online profiles, without due consideration to relevant privacy settings, immediately opens them up to security risks. Access to personal data could allow criminals to gain a significant insight into an individual's lifestyle, likely passwords or other confidential information. Associations within a social networking site could also cause problems for some, as anybody performing an online search will be able to see communications and online interactions. Communicating or being associated with particular individuals could prove detrimental when it comes to potential online employee screening, as 'online friends' or acquaintances' activities can reflect badly on the individual in question. Nobody is in control of their friends' behaviour or language and it is important to remember that online records last forever. This is the World Wide Web and therefore remnants of conversations or 'friend links' with somebody who perhaps develops a criminal record or disreputable media profile will always be traceable through standard Internet search functions.

What is said in flippant conversation may seem clever today, but not in the years to come when a candidate loses an exciting career opportunity because of it. The important thing to remember is that there is nowhere to hide from an Internet search result that brings up an embarrassing or detrimental comment. You cannot relocate or emigrate to escape the evidence!

Identity theft is perhaps the most obvious risk of creating an online presence through social networking with hackers and viruses having easy access to personal information. When creating an online profile, email, address, or telephone information should never be disclosed. Networkers should also be careful with opinions or comment when discussing other individuals and previous, current, or even potential employers. Details which are traceable over a period of time can give fraudsters more than enough information to secure a false identity based around an individual and unfortunately a death has provided the perfect opportunity for fraudsters to adopt an identity in the past. Aside from the obvious legal implications of this, it can be an unnecessarily traumatic ordeal for friends and family members to have to deal with once the problem has been exposed.

Identity theft through social networking is now a very real and developing threat. There is a reliance that an ISP or network site has the appropriate security in place to protect users from these risks, however this is not always the case and users need to be aware of all potential risks relating to their online profile. ISP's and social networking sites are fast becoming fraud targets in their own right, with the treasure being the data held on each registrant, usually including IP addresses which could lead to serious hacking problems.

Social networking users often think that only giving access to specified 'friends' to see profiles and record details, but rarely consider whether these 'friends' are indeed who they say they are. What happens if 'friends' pass on their own access information to unknown third parties, or put a snapshot of profile information into the public domain? Tracing this leak would be incredibly difficult and once the damage has been done it will forever remain in the public domain. It is important to remember that there is never any real confidentiality on the World Wide Web.
Facebook has intentions to release its member directory into the public domain, enabling search engines such as Google.com to include profile information in search results. Having easily manageable security settings allows Facebook users to effectively manage the content of their site available to 'non-friends' or unidentified third parties, but will the release of the member directory into the public domain risk the effectiveness of this? Only time will tell; but users need to be aware of the potential dangers of not managing their security settings properly
.
The amount of information available to search engines can be controlled using these privacy settings, which is a significantly different offering compared to other, more accessible social networking sites such as MySpace, which has limited privacy control and readily shares information with search engines.

Employers should be aware that allowing employees to access social networking sites from work systems can open up their security walls and increase the risks of hackers or fraudsters infiltrating important or confidential data or documents.

Recent research has shown that UK employees spend on average 233 million hours1 monthly on social networking sites, which is set to rise in the coming months. Many workplaces are beginning to ban the site to improve employee efficiency, and reduce the security risks, but where do businesses draw the line?
Recently the TUC commented that employees should have access to social networking websites during office hours. They also recognised that whilst employers are right to be concerned about security risks or damage to company reputation in the use of social networking sites, not enough workplaces are informing staff about what they expect in terms of employee personal conduct. A real issue of misuse is the time spent on such sites within work hours and surely the onus is on the organisation's management to ensure they effectively communicate their expectations, and trust, in the use of such sites - and implement a monitoring system if they feel the need. If it is more a case of employees taking advantage of being able to use such sites, expectations in relation to the employee use of social networking sites need to be communicated within the organisation so that boundaries are set and employees understand the implications of crossing these.

The solution to all these risks is simple; social networking users need to remain aware of who might obtain access to their profile information and be vigilant as to the content uploaded and discussed on their pages. And, it is just as important to remember that information uploaded can be beneficial, as it is to be aware of its potential detrimental effects on career prospects. Social networkers must maintain and control their privacy settings to ensure that a degree of control remains over the information they do choose to upload, as well as paying due consideration to their employers, as well as themselves, in their actions and potential consequences.
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