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Stupid Snooping Watch: Social Intelligence? Hardly

6/28/11

By Ken Magill

The Federal Trade Commission recently gave the okay to a startup that does background checks on job applicants by searching social media sites for questionable postings.

The FTC ruled that Social Intelligence Corp. operates within the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Fine. Social media postings are public, and employers have every right to try and figure out if a job applicant is potentially racist or violent.

Unfortunately—if the examples Social Intelligence gave to reporters covering it are representative of the way it judges applicants—it draws conclusions that are wildly out of line.

In one example, a man posted a picture of himself holding an assault rifle with others holding a handgun and a sword. There is also a beer in the picture.

Is the man demonstrating irresponsible behavior? Yes, but only because of the beer. Being photographed with a weapon isn’t irresponsible.

However, according to Forbes blogger Kashmir Hill, the photo resides in a file at Social Intelligence called “Workplace Shooting Waiting to Happen.”

Social Intelligence also gave the man a negative rating for “[d]emonstrating potentially violent behavior.”

Oh, bullshit.

I own three shotguns of various gages and two .22 rifles. I haven’t fired them in years, but only because I moved away from where I used to take them for target practice—200 acres of family-owned property in Western New York State.

Whenever I would take people to our land to shoot, I had three rules:

Never let the business end of the gun pass even momentarily over something you wouldn’t mind seeing a hole in.

If you have a hunting license and shoot something in season, fine. But you had better eat it. No popping off on a bird just because you feel like killing something.

And you can drink alcohol or shoot, but not both. The minute that first beer comes out, the guns go away. No exceptions.

Point being: Gun ownership says nothing about one’s potential for violence. Many of us are very responsible.

Social Intelligence drawing the job-prospect-damaging conclusion it did of the man who posted the photo of himself and friends holding weapons was just plain irresponsible.

Don’t get me wrong: Potential employers have every right to draw a negative conclusion as a result of the photo. But Social Intelligence shouldn’t do it for them.

In another case of unfair judgment, Social Intelligence labeled someone a racist for joining the Facebook group: “I shouldn’t have to press 1 for English. We are in the United States. Learn the language.”

Certainly, the tone of the name of that group is hostile and I have no doubt some of its members are prejudiced against Hispanics. But wanting new immigrants to the U.S. to learn English is not, in and of itself, a racist position.

Social Intelligence is just begging for a lawsuit brought by someone who believes they’ve been passed over for a position as a result of one of its conclusions, especially if its executives regularly leap to the types of unwarranted conclusions they’ve drawn the two examples I’ve seen.

Moreover, any employer who takes Social Intelligence’s conclusions seriously risks missing out on a qualified employee for no good reason.
 

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