'A changing view of privacy'

Reviewing social media posts as part of background checks is becoming more widespread, and even job candidates are beginning to support the practice.

Like their industry counterparts, federal agencies and their contractors are finding that monitoring social media to maintain IT and physical security can be frustrating, in part because of the lack of legal guidelines.

Legal and federal contracting experts say that publicly available posts are fair game when agencies are conducting background checks on prospective employees or monitoring current employees for insider security threats. But knowing what qualifies as "publicly available" can be tricky.

"We're in the early stages" of how employers use information gathered from social media sources, said Mike Eastman, senior counsel and vice president for public policy at the Equal Employment Advisory Council. He made his remarks at an Oct. 15 Professional Services Council panel discussion on the topic.

Charles Sowell, senior vice president of Salient Federal Solutions and a former senior adviser in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said viewing posts on Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites is similar to sifting through traditional sources such as court and criminal records.

However, he stressed that state and federal regulations prohibit an employer from asking for passwords or asking employees to log into their accounts so the employer can view their posts.

Ultimately, Sowell said, information gleaned from social media can open up new areas of investigation, but that information is not any more significant than what is gathered from other sources.

"Social media is a subset of publicly available information," but it does not cancel out everything else, he said.

What constitutes "publicly available," however, remains something of a legal gray area, but it includes photos posted on an easily accessible Web page. On the other hand, photos posted in a protected area of a site are not considered publicly available.

If a concerned employee prints photos of a colleague engaged in questionable behavior and hands the photos to a manager of his or her own accord, the photos are probably usable as a way to open a discussion with the employee in question, Sowell said.

He added that more than a dozen questionable behaviors can spark an investigation of previously cleared employees. Beyond drinking and drug use, the list includes indications of foreign allegiance, criminal conduct and psychological issues.

Social media can also highlight people's good traits, though.

For all the blatant bad behavior that crops up on social media, Sowell cited a study released last year that said 19 percent of hiring managers had found something on a job candidate's publicly available Facebook or LinkedIn page that caused them to hire that person. Job seekers can use such sites to underscore their professionalism or show off particular skills, he added.

And attitudes about using social media for background checks are changing rapidly as more millennials join the workforce. With federal surveillance of social media in other areas driving sensational headlines, Sowell said younger workers are asking, "Why aren't you checking Facebook" for background security checks?

"There's a changing view of privacy," he said.

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