How employers spy on your search history, digital footprint


It’s all out there.

Gen Z TikTok recently went wild after one user revealed they’d missed out on a job opportunity because of something a potential employer had seen them post online. To the older generations, it was a tale of online woe as old as the internet. But to many young digital natives, the notion of real-world repercussions came as a shock.

Still, even the most skeptical, analog Boomer might be shocked to learn how much of their online lives can be viewed by potential employers during the hiring process. No matter how often you clear your browser or wipe your social media accounts, our online history is eternal, experts warn.

In fact, prying into the personal lives of job candidates is now common in the human resources world.

A great deal of personal, sensitive information can be accessed by potential employers.
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“There’s been a great deal of recent scar tissue where companies have hired individuals without looking at their profile and it’s become a PR issue,” Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer for the HR firm Workhuman, told The Post.

“It then becomes, ‘How could company X have hired such an individual?’ Companies want to avoid putting themselves in a position to be blindsided.”

While Pemberton explained that an ethical company will steer clear of certain facets of someone’s personal life during background research, one expert warns that anything and everything is exposed and could be used regardless.

“Your digital footprint doesn’t necessarily go away and it can be checked in the hiring process,” J.S. Nelson, cyber surveillance expert and visiting researcher in business ethics at Harvard Law School, told The Post. “Nothing’s really ever gone from the internet.”

Essentially, third-party data brokers collect information on individual internet users, tracking their site-to-site habits. And they’ll readily sell your each and every move — including to companies performing background checks on possible new hires.

At the executive level, it’s not uncommon for companies to hire private investigators who then purchase such information from data brokers as part of their probes into the digital lives of prospective hires.

This means that dirty searches, quirky online habits and subscriptions to sketchy newsletters and sites could all be accessed by a potential employer. Even deleted social media posts could be accessed.

Here are some situations to be wary of in the age of bigger brother.

Can they find out if I have an OnlyFans?

There are ways employers can learn if a potential hire has an OnlyFans account.
There are ways employers can learn if a potential hire has an OnlyFans account.
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The information on a person’s web history that’s sold from data brokers can lead an investigator to easily deduce whether an individual is doing online sex work, Nelson explained.

“There are all kinds of trackers and beacons on your on your browsing history all the time,” she said. “There’s no legal protection [regarding data sales] for patronizing a sex site or posting material on a sex site.”

Discovering whether a candidate is on OnlyFans has become a hot-button issue in the HR world because so many 9-to-5ers use it as a second career nowadays.

A year from now, looking into whether or not an interviewee has a spicy side hustle is “going to be one of the staples of background checks,” according to Pemberton.

How much of my search history can be seen?

Search histories can be viewed when purchased by third party data brokers.
Search histories can be viewed when purchased by third party data brokers.
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The short answer? All of it.

“You can assume that [your every search is] archived and available. What it is you’re searching, where you go, what you’re interested in and where you spend your time,” Nelson said, adding that incognito modes and private browsing don’t protect your data from being collected by brokers.

“Sites are sending information to data brokers, because there’s money in it, and data brokers resell it, because there’s money in it … so if somebody’s interested in you, that information is the result.”

Still, PIs are not often searching for social or private habits, according to Pemberton.

Rather, they’re looking into behavioral issues such as sexual misconduct, which might have been suppressed by a non-disclosure agreement with prior employers, he explained.

Can they see things I deleted from social media?

Since deleted social media photos might remain in Internet archives.
Since-deleted social media photos might remain in internet archives.
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Remember those frat party photos of you shotgunning beers on a roof years ago? Your new boss might too — whether you deleted them from Instagram or not.

Online archives, such as the WayBack Machine, keep records of social media and other web pages as they were from years past, Nelson explained. So even though questionable photos and posts may not appear on your social media today, there is an easy and public backdoor to view what once was.

Pemberton says it is less common for companies to rummage through archived info. Their main focus remains on what’s plainly visible in real time.

“Companies are looking to see how their social media checks out. Do they have controversial positions? Especially on some social issues that we might have to explain or defend.”

Social media background checks are now common — even at the entry level. So much so that some applicants for law and finance jobs are even asked to turn over their account passwords, according to Nelson.

Can they see my dating apps?

It is possible for employers to come across dating information on a candidate during background checks.
It is possible for employers to come across dating information on a candidate during background checks.
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Worried that a company might swipe left after seeing your dating-app bios?

Even if your full name isn’t used on a profile it is feasible for an individual’s dating profiles to appear during a background check through reverse image searches, Nelson said.

However, ethically sound companies know better than to poke around a prospective new hire’s love life.

Doing so is above “cruising altitude” for a background check and is a line that would not be crossed by reasonable employers “as it would be deemed too personal,” Pemberton said.

Can they find out my political views?

A person's registered political party is public information.
A person’s registered political party is public information.
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A person’s registered political party is public information, and can be easily found through government election board websites.

“Not only a person’s political party, but also if they made financial contributions to a candidate,” Nelson said. “They can also see which elections a person did or did not vote in.”

But Pemberton said responsible HR departments avoid political probes like they’re the plague.

“That’s a bright line and one that does not get crossed,” he said. “It is not subject to any kind of review.”



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