Flickr image courtesy webtreats

*Social Intelligence CEO Max Drucker responds in an update below

Remember that hazy trip to Cabo San Lucas with old friends a few years ago? Those margaritas were huge. You just had to post photos of them on Facebook, along with a few other Kodak moments. Then you mostly forgot about them.

Even if you don’t recall all of the sordid details from that weekend of debauchery, your employer may know all about it. That’s because a new company called Social Intelligence billing itself as a social media private eye will observe your Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other online accounts on behalf of employers to make certain you’re not a liability.

Background checks involving criminal records and credit histories are typical and even expected of many major employers responsible for children, nursing homes or public safety.

But the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company takes this concept to a new level offering an automated tool that mines social media content for troubling signs. Search filters can be customized “to reflect corporate culture,” and additional manual reviews are conducted by “social media experts.”

A display tells the human resources manager in your workplace how many “negative” hits are uncovered, placing the names of both job applicants and active employees next to red flags like “drugs/drug lingo,” “gangs,” “poor judgment” and “demonstrating potentially violent behavior.”

Social Intelligence is the latest in an ever-expanding movement by both corporations and government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to use new communications tools for surveillance purposes. Some of the most provocative examples yet emerged only in recent weeks.

The trend raises fresh questions about how standards enforcing privacy online can withstand the rush of data about you and everyone else that courses through the Internet.

After finally landing a job, the information gathering has only just begun. From there, Social Intelligence will carry out near “real-time surveillance” of your behavior with screenshots and customizable reports used to document activity and keep the front office informed. Its marketing materials play into larger fears every employer could have. According to the company’s website:

Once employees have been hired, their online behavior poses a possible threat to your company. Employees may criticize managers or coworkers on a social networking site, post questionable photos on a blog, or regularly update personal sites while on the clock. … Consistent monitoring creates awareness and strict adherence among employees, thereby reducing ‘cyber slacking,’ fraud and negative company publicity. pointed out Sept. 29 that Social Intelligence doesn’t actively “friend” users to surreptitiously access more private posts online. The goal is to shield companies from job seekers and employees who turn out to be dangerous or untrustworthy. Litigation following violent episodes in the workplace can hinge on warning signs an institution may have been aware of in advance. But clearly bloodshed isn’t the only thing Social Intelligence is promising to help prevent.

Government investigators, meanwhile, will quietly friend you and more generally use social media to seek out evidence of possible security threats and spy on political organizations. New documents unearthed recently in Pennsylvania show that state homeland security officials used Twitter accounts to watch people who had not violated any laws, including elderly anti-war protesters linked to Quaker activism.

The news came shortly after Pennsylvania’s homeland security director resigned amid revelations that the state paid a private contractor thousands of dollars to monitor gay and lesbian groups, environmentalists and even a nonprofit tied to the governor. Findings from the surveillance were compiled in intelligence reports ostensibly designed to inform authorities about potential terrorism. But the public reacted angrily. Gov. Ed Rendell apologized, calling the intel-gathering “ludicrous” and insisting he wasn’t aware of it.

Then in October, the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit showing that the federal government created a special center prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration for analyzing oceans of data passing through Facebook, Twitter and other sites in an attempt to identify hazards.

Further records turned over to EFF revealed that federal investigators were taught how they could deceptively “friend” people applying to become citizens and snoop for relationship details meeting the government’s standard of a legitimate marriage. According to one internal memo:

Narcissistic tendencies in many people fuels a need to have a large group of ‘friends’ link to their pages, and many of these people accept cyber-friends that they don’t even know. … Once a user posts online, they create a public record and timeline of their activities.

In documents made publicly available earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security, officials described another new program for maintaining “situational awareness” that involved tracking social media sites and other online destinations.

Personnel at the department’s National Operations Center scan the web using dozens upon dozens of key search terms and phrases, among them “militia,” “cops,” “riot,” “dirty bomb,” “Mexican army,” “decapitated,” “Iraq,” “radicals” and many more. The NOC stores and analyzes its results before determining what tips should be distributed to other government agencies and even private companies authorized to receive such information.

As for Social Intelligence, attempting to expose online criticism from employees could become its own liability. The National Labor Relations Board is arguing that condemnation of your boss on Facebook doesn’t justify termination. Lawyers for the labor board alleged in late October that an ambulance company violated the law when it fired an employee for disparaging remarks made on the web. Observers are calling the case ground-breaking.

What’s DHS watching online? Below is a list of sites monitored and key terms searched. Click here for a report on the department’s Social Media Monitoring Initiative.

*After we posted, Social Intelligence CEO Max Drucker sent us an e-mail to say that his company doesn’t view itself as a “private eye,” which is a sensitive notion among privacy advocates. Drucker said the company is “working very hard” to incorporate feedback from potential critics:

I realize that ‘private eye’ is in the vernacular, but the implication is that we are promoting ourselves as cyber sleuths, which we have been very careful not to do.

He added that Social Intelligence looks for comments and material in online profiles that meet criteria established by employers in advance. This can protect job applicants from discrimination, he argues, because employers aren’t left to search the web on their own and possibly become influenced by things like gender or racial factors.

Finally, we wrote that Social Intelligence uses automated tools to sift through online profiles (the company’s website calls it “automated collection”). Drucker said much of the company’s work is still largely manual:

We have members of our team review every applicant and manually identify anything that meets the employer criteria. There is clearly technology behind our service and some of our early marketing materials referenced this, but all of our tech is human intervened. The work is far too sensitive to rely on pure automation alone.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.