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October 2013
Your Digital Exhaust: A Walk Down the Digital Yellow Brick Road
By Jerry Snyder

     Recently, I had lunch with several small business owners and executives, and the topic of discussion quickly focused on hiring new employees and partnering opportunities within the community. Some questions around the table included:

 

To what level do you conduct a background check on key people?

Are there better ways to verify a candidate’s credentials?

How did Joe do at Company XYZ?

Do you hire an outside recruiter to prescreen candidates?

Is anyone using a search engine or exploring social media to look at a candidate’s  history?

What do you know about Company ABC?

 

     As part of our own services, we develop technologies for collecting surveillance and intelligence information for the military, so I became intrigued with the mining of public information and databases to support decisions related to recruiting key personnel and entering into business partnerships. I wanted to assess recent improvements in commercial search engine technology, the ability to rapidly aggregate disparate data, and the amount of historic information that has been made available via the Internet, so I decided to investigate myself as a prospective employee and assess my “digital exhaust.”

     I did a quick search on Google and Bing and looked at the most recent news articles. I then checked the LinkedIn postings to see who was making professional recommendations and reviewed postings from business associates. Then, I decided to look into public records using Intelius and was impressed with the level of detail available about my multiple residences, tax payments in those localities, construction permits, and other information mined from public records over the past 25 years.

     Taking it to the next level, I ran some searches using proprietary tools and was quickly able to map my usage of multiple Internet devices and appliances such as mobile and VoIP phones, email servers, and cloud-based peripherals. Turning to social media sites, I looked for postings that referenced me or my business.

     During this walk down the digital yellow brick road, I discovered professional papers I had written more than 20 years ago that had been archived in a government information center, as well as statements that I had made to various publications over the years that are now accessible via the Internet. I even found some technical reports that I had written in the 1980s that have been digitized and made searchable by the Federation of American Scientists.

     In the 27 years of my professional life, I have created a modest digital exhaust. That digital exhaust has increased substantially with the digitization of photos, videos, transcripts, and professional publications, and the storage of that indexed information on the cloud.

     As an employer and business owner, evaluating the digital exhaust of a prospective employee or business partner is invaluable. Within an hour, I was able to construct a comprehensive profile of a person or entity to include: validating statements made on a resume or application, identifying the history of any legal and financial matters, assessing professional performance over time, and developing a general character profile.

     Analogous to the greenhouse effect, it became apparent that the digital exhaust of a person or company does not dissipate with time—it’s trapped forever in the peripherals connected to the Internet. I cannot help but wonder about the many college students who will post photos, comments and other digital media to a website, blog or social media site that will be accessible to the public for the remainder of their professional careers.

     As a business professional, it is imperative that we recognize our own generation of digital exhaust and the accessibility, and potential use, of that information by others.

 

Jerry Snyder is President of Advanced Mission Systems, LLC. AMS specializes in technical surveillance and physical, electronic and cyber security for military, law enforcement, commercial and individual use.
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