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Thinking before you speak is becoming a bit of a lost art form. This week the Federal Trade Commission is giving internet users a reason to start thinking hard about what they say online. Social Intelligence Corp, a background checking service will start keeping record of Facebook users publicly available information as part of their check services.

It’s becoming commonplace for companies to Google potential employees in this day and age. Job seekers have started to learn the value of cleaning up their online identity before starting a job hunt. In the case of Social Intelligence Corp, your data will stay on their system for 7 years, much like bad information on your credit report. So even if you go back after the fact to clean up your Facebook statuses, that data is still on file.

So why does this matter? After all, it’s not like you’ve done anything you are ashamed of right? Plus, there are laws on the books which state employers can’t ask various types of questions. According to Social Intelligence, they only collect information which is relevant to employers under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

So let’s say that you are out with a group of friends at a bar. One of them for fun tags a picture of you with, “Joe and his new bong.” You see the photo the next morning and untag it. That tag and photo have all ready been saved because your buddy doesn’t have his privacy settings turned on. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, drug use is something which is legally reportable. You’ve never used drugs, yet there’s now a chance that you will flag as a drug user in a background check. All due to a Facebook prank.

As another example, you find out that you are expecting your first child.  You update that on Facebook. That status update shows up accidentally in a background check report. You don’t get the job. You have no way of knowing if you didn’t get the job because you weren’t the best candidate, or if the Human Resources rep decided that bringing a pregnant woman into the company wasn’t a good idea. Is that supposed to happen? Of course not. But companies are run by humans, not computers. Humans aren’t perfect, and they do allow their own bias to impact decisions.

You are looking for your first job after college. What you don’t know is that a picture of you at a prom after party with a bottle of Bud in your hand shows up in your background check. You were 17, underage, and stupid. Because that information stays on file for 7 years, you may be rejected as a candidate.  All because you didn’t realize that your friends had posted the picture of you.

I came of age on-line in a time where the rule was, “don’t say something you don’t want to have come back at you.” There was an understanding that you needed to take pains to protect your identity on-line.  With the flood of social media and share everything, the push to protect your information isn’t as strong.  People don’t realize that information on-line doesn’t just vanish. With time and patience, it can be tracked down. Insurance companies are using social media updates to deny claims. We are on the leading edge of a generation of young Americans who will face serious questions in job interviews related to what has been traditionally been private conduct. Because it’s been tweeted out, and updated on Facebook, it’s now being considered fair game.

You think it can’t happen to you. Yet all it takes is a formerly trusted website changing settings, and your private business could be public knowledge. A friend of mine contacted me the other day to let me know that posts I had believed were reasonably private, were now public. For a period of time I was a member of Bill Phillips’s Transformation.com. At the time I was there, you had to be a member to read various sections of the site. Individuals were encouraged to post very private information in order to “share their concealments”.  In other words, fess up to doing bad things in your past as part of your “transformation” process. Now as I said before, I’m old school internet. I don’t post things like that in places I don’t trust. So I never made those types of posts. There were a lot of folks who did. Now anyone can go to the website, and without being a member, access those posts and put them on any number of social media sites.

I read stories from people confessing to extra marital affairs, drug and alcohol abuse, and a wide range of lying and cheating activities. At the time I was floored. This type of information has no business being available to the masses. When I voiced concerns, I was told that the site required a login, so it was fine.

Not so much anymore.

I’ve been told for several years now that my focus on privacy was silly. Now the FTC is giving companies the green light to archive public status updates. The Library of Congress is logging every public tweet on Twitter. The line between public and private continues to blur.

All  I can say is, I’m thankful for my early time on the Net. I generally think a bit before something goes up, even an off the cuff status update. I keep my privacy settings tight on Facebook. I always ask myself if I’m going to be ashamed of something 20 years down the road. If the answer is anything other than no, it doesn’t go up.

Think before you post. Remember that you can’t rely on a company to keep your private information safe. That’s your responsibility.

It’s time that we all start moving back to thinking before we speak.