When Big Business acts like Big Brother

The National Security Agency (NSA) is not the only thing suspiciously sifting through social networks. Like miners at the height of the gold rush, private businesses have also gravely offended liberty through “investigative consumer reports” whereby they attempt to collect nuggets of detailed information about job-seekers.

What happened to the days when a clean-shaven young man could walk into a business and ask to speak to the manager about employment? Maybe the manager had some work available and maybe he did not. Or maybe, if he could not offer employment, he could direct the eager job-seeker to a colleague: “Hey Jim, I met a well-spoken youngster today, seems polite and willing to work, have you got anything for him? Yes, says he has a degree and is trying to make a living through writing, but just wants to help his wife out with the bills.” Was it so long ago that an application was a mere formality, and that the true judge of character came through a handshake and conversation? Was it so long ago that, as grounds for employment, you didn’t have to present Polaroid photos of what you did last weekend?

I vaguely recall hearing about some employers requesting Facebook passwords a year or two ago, although back then, I do not remember it being particularly widespread. Maybe it was hosted on some less than reputable site and I did not consider the story valid or important. The point is I didn’t remember to remember it. Yet in my quest for employment, I have come across the process firsthand. The business was a local Budget Rental Car branch in South Carolina, and what follows is the last page of the application:

“I understand that a consumer report may consist of any information gathered by a consumer reporting agency which bears on my credit worthiness, credit standing, credit capacity, character, general reputation, personal characteristics, mode of living, or criminal background (if any) may be gathered from credit reporting agencies, internet searches or review of social media sites (including Facebook or twitter), and/or personal interview with many people, including my relatives, friends, co-workers, associates.” (Emphasis mine.)

You would have to be one-hundred-percent-in-need-of-thorazine insane to sign something like this. It’s the contradictory blend of ambiguity and detail that strikes the reader. Given those conditions, I can think of nothing that is off limits to an employer or some agency. Moreover, no terms are defined, and no method given. Who will conduct this investigation? What lawyer has defined “review” or “searches” for the purpose of this form? Does it include my friend list? Photos? Facebook messages? And as a practical concern, why should one bother to list references if the employer has access to so “many” people?

I really don’t think I’m being unreasonable here. I know at a rental car business I’d have access to the keys of a number of vehicles. But in the past, I worked at an upscale Marriott resort where I regularly valet parked a wide variety of cars—everything from your stereotypical Honda Civic with a coffee can for an exhaust pipe up to and including a Mercedes SLR McLaren. Never once did my boss or supervisor request to review personal information. Maybe that means Marriott doesn’t care about their customers. Or maybe it just means they give a damn when it comes to privacy.

I feel the need to add that some agencies for employment may have a legitimate need to some of the information mentioned above. A good friend of mine recently graduated from engineering school and applied for work at a large company that does contract work for the government. He needed references for a security clearance and an extensive background check—would I be so kind? I obliged. However, there is a big difference in renting cars to kindly Southerners and being intimately involved with the war machines of the most powerful army on the planet. Perhaps that does call for a little more than a look at the points on your driver’s license.

The majority of other Americans, on the other hand, should wonder if this will become a trend. A consequence of the government’s unrestrained expedition for private data is that the big businesses—call them Little Brother—will mimic those behaviors. It is a pity that traditional hiring is a thing of the past, but it’s considerably worse when you realize that even the days of simple background checks and pissing in a cup have come to end.

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