Today it is all too easy to post photos of your vacation on Facebook and Instagram, tweet about your day out, or share your thoughts about the presidential election on social media. This may sound harmless and unlikely to affect future job prospects, but the problem is that today’s social media users often overshare on social media and provide what could politely be described as “too much information.”
The same posts seen by your ex or your mom are also visible in the course of your job application and security clearance investigation. What you post online today could tank your chances for future employment in the government and security sector in the years to come.
“Once it is out there, it is out there,” warned Greg T. Rinckey of the Tully Rinckey law office. “What you post, even if it was meant as a joke, could be a problem because it sets you up for blackmail and other issues. Agencies don’t like it when people have things like this that need explaining.”
Think Before You Post
Facebook and other social media services have made it easy to connect to friends and colleagues. While these connections can be a great tool for networking, the downside, warn experts, is that all too often the wrong message can be what gets people into trouble. What begins as a casual – even friendly – debate can get ugly, while other times people feel so comfortable posting that they post things they shouldn’t.
This isn’t limited to social media, but has been an issue with anything posted online. While email may seem private, they aren’t really point-to-point messages but are passed through servers. The hacking of Sony’s servers in late 2014 revealed many “personal” communications that executives likely wish would not have been leaked.
“All of the content we contribute online is going through an Internet service provider, e.g. your cable system or telephone company,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. “From there, it’s traveling through the Internet, traversing through routers and networks to the final destination. As we now know, governments and private industry can tap into it fairly easily to understand what sites you’re visiting as well as the content somebody contributes.”
For this reason, people need to think of online activity as public activity, added Crandall.
“Many people feel ‘safe’ when it comes to saying things on social media that they wouldn’t say directly to somebody who’s in the same room,” he added. “If you wouldn’t say something directly to somebody, it’s best not to share it online either. In fact, it’s more important to be careful online because everything that you contribute leaves its tracks.”
Anyone even considering a career in government or any related field where background checks can go deep should consider what they post, and protect it as they would the rest of their image and reputation. It is much harder to keep the skeletons in the closet if there are photos and long winded rants on forums.
“You smoking a bong at a frat party, even it was 10 years earlier, isn’t going to go over so well,” added Rinckey. “But even if you didn’t do it, or aren’t in the picture, just commenting on these things – depending on your viewpoint – can be an issue as well. It creates not exactly guilty association, but it does suggest questionable actions. Kids do stupid things, but when you post it online it doesn’t disappear.”
If your grandma shouldn’t read it, you probably shouldn’t post it
This isn’t to say that social media should be avoided entirely. Not only has it become a part of our culture, but as noted it can be used for networking and even used to promote one’s works and other accomplishments. Sharing special moments isn’t a problem.
The trick is to accentuate the positive, as the old song suggests. So if you think what you are posting might be taken the wrong way – don’t do it.
“I tell clients never put anything on the Internet anything they wouldn’t put on a business card or piece of paper and hand out to complete strangers on a city street corner,” said Lon S. Safko, social media consultant, and former “Q” clearance holder with the United States Department of Energy. “Anything you do on the Web should be done with caution.”
This sentiment is shared by those offering legal advice to prospective security clearance seekers.
“We tell our clients that everything you do on the Internet – whether it is social media, downloading music on Napster, looking at pornography, can be found,” said Bradley P. Moss of The James Madison Project, and the
Law Office of Mark S. Zaid, P.C. “The question is whether the agencies vet social media posts; no, but they have started to look at it, and the fact is that you don’t want to look bad. So posting photos of you holding a beer at a frat party doesn’t present you in the best light. It might not be bad, but it certainly isn’t good.”
Repairing the Damage Done by your digital dirt
If you have already posted photos you wish you didn’t, or made comments you can’t exactly “scrub” from the Internet, there are still ways to make amends.
“If you make a mistake and share something inappropriate online, whether that’s on a social media site, discussion board, or comments after an article, it’s best to try and edit it or delete it from the site,” suggested Crandall. “If that’s not possible on a social media site, it’s also helpful to share other content to ‘bury’ your previous remarks. This may avoid some of the social fallout, but employers may dig deep to dredge up whatever they can find.”
In the end if you fear these skeletons may come out, the best thing to do is to not to try to cover them up. In the digital age that’s very hard to do.
“Ultimately, you need to ‘own’ what you say online,” added Crandall. “The same way you do when you are talking to others in-person.”