When social networking goes bad

28 Mar 2008

Do you have Facebook? video

When you foist yourself and your details onto a social networking site, be aware that you may have less control than you think over who sees your information, and what they use it for.

Have you been poked or had a sheep thrown at you? Have you been invited to partake in movie or personality quizzes like the kind you see in teen magazines? Or have you searched the networks ruthlessly to strike up business contacts or boost your profile?

It may all seem like innocent fun to while away your time, striking up new relationships or embracing this 21st-century medium for career success, but social networking sites are beginning to show a darker side.

Damaged careers, fraud, industrial espionage, ruined reputations and destroyed relationships are emerging from the social networking scene, as individuals are learning the hard way that delving into these forums could have an adverse affect on their professional and personal lives.

“There are over 70 million people on Facebook and it is still a very public place,” says technology blogger Damien Mulley. “It’s a honey pot if people don’t manage their information. Online commerce sites like eBay and Amazon ask for details like your date of birth or your mother’s maiden name. And an open profile could give me enough information to ring up a bank and bluff my way into accessing your account details.”

Another nightmare scenario is the fact that while it is not part of human resources (HR) policy and probably breaks the law in some respects, HR managers can be quite zealous in searching for information on existing and potential employees. That picture of you frolicking half naked in Ibiza when you were 18, for instance, could come back to haunt you when you’re 30.

“The official line in HR is they can’t discriminate against someone based on something they found on the internet,” says Mulley. “They stick to reading CVs and asking questions in the interview. But there are ways around these things. I would be disappointed if a potential employer didn’t run my name through Google first. In fact, I’d wonder at the intelligence of the HR department if they didn’t.”

Financial faux pas
Whether accidental or zealous, the use of social networking has already landed one hapless executive in deep water. The employee of an unnamed Irish bank emailed his boss and asked for some time off due to a family emergency. A few days later his employer went onto Facebook and discovered a photo of him in the US dressed in a fairy outfit while drinking a can of beer at a party. The picture was tagged with the date and time of the previous night.

“His boss sent him an email with a copy of the photo attached and then forwarded it to everyone else in the office who was concerned for him. He lost his job,” says Eamon Carey, co-founder of digital media production firm Random Thoughts. He is currently compiling a series of documentaries on the Facebook phenomenon, called Poked!, with Stephen McCormack of Wildwave Technologies.

“There are dangers in being linked to people you work with on social networking sites. For example, if I’m waiting for a spreadsheet that’s a day late, I can look on Facebook and find out if my staff have been busy playing Scrabble and fighting vampires, and build up a profile of what they’ve been doing with their time.

“There are so many pitfalls for people on social networking sites. If a prudish potential employer does a search and sees you in a sleazy bar in Thailand when you were 21, he or she may not hire you on that basis. Companies are taking a hard line on this and I know lots of solicitors’ firms that have a ban on the use of social networking sites. Other companies are more progressive and allocate employees a certain amount of time in the day to access personal stuff, whether it’s LinkedIn or sports sites. Irish media firms that have banned social networking include Setanta and Newstalk,” says Carey.

“We have yet to see any wholesale reference checking on these sites,” says Mark O’Donnell of Deloitte. “But increasingly, as employees enter their late 20s or early 30s and want to move up the ladder, they professionalise their social networking profiles and tone things down a little.”

The fear factor and the tendency to judge employees’ online behaviour is actually stifling the potential use of the technology as a medium to drum up new business or sales leads.

“Unfortunately, social networking has the label of time wasting attached to it. But visionary individuals are using sites like LinkedIn to both recruit and be recruited. However, Irish companies see it as a threat to productivity, staff tenure and retention,” says O’Donnell.

Virtually vicious
Mark Harris, director of security at Ernst & Young, says another common nightmare scenario affiliated with social networking is bullying allegations, which his firm has had to investigate. “We’ve had to employ forensics in a case where there were allegations of bullying on a Bebo page between employees in the same firm. The page had been taken down and the debate degenerated into a ‘his word against mine’ argument. Our forensics revealed there was evidence of bullying online.”

Harris’ colleague Pat Moran, a partner at Ernst & Young, says firms also fear industrial espionage. “A member of a small department in a large company may put something up about a business trip he was on. An employee from a rival company may be able to piece together the information and disrupt a potential deal or get their hands on a product secretly.

“The next 10 years is going to be about privacy. Remember, whether you use Facebook, MySpace or Bebo, you are leaving a trail of very valuable information out there.”
Mulley warns: “Once your information becomes digital, it will never be erased and will live online forever. They talk about the sins of the father — think instead of the sins of yourself when you were 17 or 18, as all that will still be out there when you are 70.”

Poked by the taxman
Tipperary-based Dutch businessman Evert Bopp took to social networking with great gusto, believing it to be the perfect way to gather contacts and promote his business efforts. But then he received a letter from the Revenue Commissioners telling him they were about to audit one of his companies, which was no longer active.

He explains: “I wrote back telling them they were free to do the audit but the business in question was no longer operational. They said it didn’t matter as it was a standard procedure and they would conduct the audit anyway.

“They showed up at my business premises and the auditor sat down, opened a briefcase and handed me print-outs of my profiles on various sites from Xing to LinkedIn and Facebook.”

Bopp says that while he is a member of these various sites, the one he uses is LinkedIn because it is more business-oriented than the others.

“Facebook doesn’t add value for me. It’s more a social thing with a lot of silly applications.”

Asked if he was surprised that the taxman now audits internet sites, Bopp says: “I found it surprising they went that far. It’s something people need to be aware of. The information on a Facebook or LinkedIn profile is not a legally binding document — if anything, people use them to make themselves look better, like printing a glossy brochure.”

The auditor confirmed to Bopp that checking social networking profiles has become standard procedure. “They said they will look at all information that is available in the public domain, including social networking sites.”

Will it change his usage of these sites? “No. I might remove my profile from sites I don’t use but I will keep using LinkedIn because I have made good contacts and it has helped to bring in business. I will not veer away from it just because Revenue is looking at it.”

By John Kennedy

Do you have Facebook? video