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Don't Blow Your Cover

by Susan P. Joyce

Over and over, I see job seekers under-estimating the reach of every-day technology and, consequently, sabotaging their own job search. The combination of e-mail, blogs, and search engines can be very dangerous.

For example, over the past couple of years, I've read very personal information about someone, online, that really made me cringe:

** A job seeker asked if the 15-year-old record of a failed drug test would be uncovered by one of the reference checking services.

** Another job seeker asked if his sealed juvenile arrest record for DWI (10 years in the past) could surface to ruin his chances at a job.

In both cases, the person's name and e-mail address was published along with the question. Also in both cases, the answer to the question being asked was probably "no" - until the job seekers themselves made public announcements by asking their questions in a public forum! These 2 job seekers "outed" themselves.

E-Mailing Away Your Privacy!

E-mail often seems like an informal conversation among friends. It is most definitely NOT! Don't put your biggest secret (or fear) in writing in an e-mail, even to your best friend or favorite relative because:

** Messages sent to large or public distribution lists are often very widely distributed and may end up being archived on a Website where they can be pulled into search engine databases and found.

** A majority of large employers routinely retain and scan all e-mail in the company's e-mail system, looking for information and security leaks.

** Employers also monitor Internet and Web usage, so using a Web-based e-mail system (like Yahoo or Hotmail, etc.) isn't protection against snooping.

** Messages get forwarded, and you have no control, or knowledge, of where they may go after you hit that "Send" button.

** Messages are stored - by the e-mail software (checked your Sent Mail folder lately?) and, often, by the e-mail systems and Internet e-mail infrastructure as part of routine backups. Some organizations and systems archive messages for several years.

In the U.S., federal law supports an employer's right to view employee e-mail, particularly in financial services organizations where sharing information is very closely regulated. Your employer should have an e-mail and Internet "acceptable use" policy published, but, even if they don't have a policy, don't assume that you have any privacy. It is always safest to assume that someone else is viewing all of your Internet activities and e-mail messages at work.

Blogging Away Your Privacy!

Blogs are fun, informative, and often controversial.  It's very tempting to post a comment on a blog, but you need to be aware that - even if it is a "private" blog - tens, hundreds, if not thousands of other visitors to that blog may view your comments.

However, it's not safe to assume that only people interested in the subject being blogged will see your comments because of our good friends, the search engines (see below).

Know that Search Engines Catalog Billions of Web Pages.

It's their job! Google currently lists 8,058,044,651 Web pages have been pulled into their database. The other search engines also claim to have indexed billions of Web pages. Often, these pages include some fairly obscure information from obscure Websites, like:

** E-mail messages archived on Websites by "public" news groups and e-mail groups.

** Comments posted on blogs. Blogs provide great search engine "food" so search engine spiders visit them often.

Google Yourself!

Recruiters and potential employers, as well as potential colleagues, creditors, etc., often use Google to see what's "out there" about you. It's not uncommon to do a search on your e-mail address as well as your name.

Do your own Google search to see what will be found, and repeat that search periodically, even if you have always been very careful with e-mail and don't post to blogs. Someone else with the same, or a very similar name, may not be as cautious, and you could be assumed to be the person who made the faux pas or the damaging statements.

What Should You Do?

For content already pulled into the search engines -

** If it's on your own Website (or a part of a Website that you can control), remove the page or the content.

** If the information is in Web page someone else controls, you can request that they remove the content.

Don't make the removal request via e-mail - you'll be making another electronic disclosure and leaving another digital trail! Make the request via old- fashioned "snail mail."

In both cases, above, it may take several months for the changes, assuming that they are made, to percolate through all the search engine databases.

Damage control - If the content cannot be removed, prepare a "damage control" plan - something to tell potential employers about the message or the posting that will present it in the most benign light possible.

Identity crisis - If comments made by someone else look like they were made by you, be sure to make that an important component of your damage control plan.

To make comments and/or send e-mail "safely" -

** Establish a private, throw away, e-mail address with Yahoo, Hotmail, etc. Never use your name in association with that e-mail address!

** Don't leave your name attached to anything that may come back to haunt you. Watch out for the signature file" that your e-mail software may automatically attach to the bottom of every message you send. Or, your member "profile" linked to some blogs or other group postings.

** Don't send personal e-mail from work or using a computer and/or Internet connection provided by your employer. The same applies to personal postings on blogs. You may be violating the organization's "acceptable use" policy (which can get you fired), and, in the U.S., you can have no assumption of privacy.

Technology can be our biggest friend, but it can be an enemy as well. As the old Hill Street Blues police sargeant used to tell the patrol officers at the start of every watch, "be careful out there!"

About Susan Joyce: In 1995, Susan emerged from a corporate career to found NETability, Inc., a Web site development and consulting company, teach online job-hunting skills and grow, the award-winning job search portal. For more than a decade, she has written and spoken extensively on the subject of online job search to groups ranging from the U.S. Department of Labor to local support groups. Susan is truly a pioneer in this field. She has been quoted in TIME Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and countless other publications, both online and offline. Susan has an M.B.A. in Information Systems and a B.S. in Education.