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The Privacy Advisor | How Social Networking Tools Can Be Dangerous for Those Needing Anonymity Related reading: Where Domestic Violence and Technology Collide

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For most, using social networking sites to scope out jobs or make professional connections isn’t risky, at least not in a personal safety sense. Signing up to use a site like LinkedIn, for example, to try to find a job doesn’t represent risks any greater than signing up for any online service might present. Of course, there’s always the danger that a site you give your personal information to might get hacked or an employee might send a list with your name on it to the wrong person. But simply using the service itself generally doesn’t present a risk to one’s physical well-being.

But at a time when technology is growing more pervasive and most social media and employment sites collect and display location information, it can be extremely difficult for a victim of domestic abuse to fall off his or her abuser’s radar. While victims may choose to leave their hometowns or home states in hopes of starting a new life, they’re unlikely to succeed if their abusers are determined to find them and are able to do so by using publicly available tracking methods.

Becoming untraceable in today’s society is nearly impossible. Victims may be able to close accounts or create ones under pseudonyms for social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+, allowing them to connect with the lives they left behind. But closing a LinkedIn account or using a pseudonym is not feasible in today’s market—not if a person wants a job.

Many recruiters now rely heavily on LinkedIn to evaluate prospective candidates’ previous work experience. Recruiters recommend that job seekers join LinkedIn because they will systematically check the site for candidates and, in fact, check the candidate’s LinkedIn profile as the first screening mechanism once they receive an application. 

Consequently, closing a LinkedIn profile, making it nonpublic or using a pseudonym can have serious repercussions on an applicant’s chances of getting a job, especially if the applicant is moving to a new area—something victims of domestic abuse often do out of necessity. The disadvantage is that they lose the advantage of an established reputation. Trying to rely on a traditional resume or referral system may be impractical now. LinkedIn allows members to get recommendations from previous employers and coworkers on their profiles. Such recommendations are highly valued by recruiters, but also make sense given the nature of today’s working environment. Supervisors usually are difficult to reach and some of them may leave the company, move out of state or simply be too busy to provide traditional referrals. Say the supervisor or coworker has moved to another time zone, getting a traditional referral simply may not be possible. So LinkedIn solved this problem. It created a referral system that eliminated the need for the reviewer to be available at the recruiter’s convenience.

Those who want to succeed in a job search are encouraged to make the largest amount of employment information public, i.e., previous employment, current living location, etc. Even if the person chooses not to display his other location information publicly, displaying current employment information may be enough for an abuser to find the victim’s current living location. That’s because company name, employee name and job title provide more than enough information for one person to find another. Moreover, according to LinkedIn policy, any LinkedIn member may see any user’s profile regardless of the privacy settings selected by the user. Users only control their privacy settings as it pertains to people searching for them on the web—that is to say, people who have not logged into their LinkedIn account or do not have one.

If a person has a LinkedIn account, he or she may access a full profile of the other LinkedIn member he or she is searching for. However, he or she will not be able to access an email, phone number or mailing address unless the searched user adds the person as a connection.

So, you say, why doesn’t the domestic violence victim just go back to the old way of networking? But victims of domestic abuse who spent time networking would be forced to give up what was likely years of work to create a reputation if they were to return to the traditional resume and referral system model.

Often, domestic violence center websites offer victims advice regarding social media. They tend to focus on social media sites like Facebook, as it’s considered a major privacy concern for victims of domestic abuse who often have friends in common with the abuser, and it’s also difficult to control the information posted by other people. But some of those concerns are applicable to LinkedIn as well.

The help center websites discuss the risk of the abuser using social media to impersonate the victim. This behavior, if executed properly, can have devastating effects on a victim’s attempt to rebuild his or her life. Former partners have personally identifiable information not available to everyone. This means they can do things such as upload pictures or prior addresses to the profile, making it credible. So even victims who are careful about which part of their personal information is publicly available online may be unable to control the data still in the hands of a former partner. Think revenge porn on a less egregious scale.

As a result, a victim applying directly for a position or depending on a recruiter to find his or her LinkedIn information may not pass the first screening mechanism, i.e., LinkedIn profile check, because the profile either conflicts with the resume or the individual has conflicting LinkedIn profiles, which will cause the recruiter to assume the victim is lying on one or more of the profiles, or the resume or all of it.

LinkedIn does allow all members to block other members and doing so prevents them from seeing certain members’ profiles. This may sound like a solution, but an abuser can still create an account under a pseudonym just to gain access to his or her former victim’s profile. (See LinkedInTermsofService, indicating that the person must provide his or her “real name.”) Consequently, domestic abuse victims must face the reality that they may never be able to hide from their abusers.

To be fair, we reached out to LinkedIn to get its take. Mary-Katharine Juric told The Privacy Advisor LinkedIn members “do have the ability to control what is publicly visible in their profile as we control how they engage with other LinkedIn members.”

LinkedIn has “made options available for members to make personal privacy decisions, based on a good set of controls,” she said. “For example, we give members the ability to choose the elements of their profile they want to be publicly available.”

Additionally, she said, LinkedIn partners with online safety organizations including the Family Online Safety Institute, ConnectSafely, NetSmartz Workshop and others.

"Although our Safety Center is targeted more toward minors, the topic of domestic violence is of high importance and would be included as part of our discussions with our partners,” she said.

Some Tips for Victims

First, victims of domestic abuse should check that no other LinkedIn profiles are created with their names or similar names, including maiden names. If the person is certain that a fake account was created using his or her name, LinkedIn allows the person to report the account.

Second, victims should never list their exact addresses on their profiles. Usually, having current employment will be sufficient for a former partner to find the person. In such a case, some precautions may be taken at the work level to minimize risk, including call and visitor screening and leaving the office with a coworker. Finally, if the victim decides that it is best to abandon LinkedIn given the nature of the abuse, he or she should make sure to obtain updated contact information for all references and secure those that are able to conform to a traditional referral system.

Finally, victims should become extremely proactive during the job search process because recruiters will no longer be able to find them through LinkedIn.

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