I’ve written before about how the data a person has posted online can come back to haunt him — the data can be used as evidence in trials against jurors and defendants, in divorce cases, against employees (which can lead to lawsuits from affected individuals), applicants to colleges and graduate schools, politicians and high school students. There’s also the issue of other kinds of data being used against a person — sometimes when that data is wrong. Data brokers’ files have been proved to be filled with errors. For example, when a news reporter looked up his file on data broker Intellius.com, he found the record said he was charged with child molestation (he wasn’t) and that he had a close male relative who was convicted of manslaughter (the reporter had never heard of the man).
Now, the Wall Street Journal takes a look at how online data, whether your own or those of your online friends and acquaintances — can affect one’s offline reputation and life:
Reputation is a tricky business. And not just for politicians anymore. This year we’re all worried about approval ratings—or should be. Reputation was once a qualitative measure of our behavior, vital but vague. Now it’s getting quantitative. Soon there is likely to be an actual numerical reputation score for each of us, like a FICO credit score but for our whole lives. […]
We’ve got the precursors now, whether or not we’re aware of them. Companies such as PeerIndex, Twitalyzer, Talentag and PostRank (bought by Google) already apply online analytics to establish the heft of an individual’s or business’s “social capital.” This means, broadly, your influence online. How many people do you reach and how many of them take action based on what you say? Are you a preacher or a wallflower?
There seem to be endless proprietary mechanisms for measuring social capital. Each company uses a different combination of metrics (they’re cagey about the specifics). […] A start-up called Klout, founded in 2008, has something more public in mind.
Klout watches your behavior on a range of online services, including Facebook (posts, comments, likes), LinkedIn (comments, likes) and Google+ (comments, reshares, +1s). Then it boils down your social Web activity to a score between 1 and 100. Higher means more influential. “Top influencers” get a gold sash around their number, like a beauty pageant winner. Low scorers, their sense of self-worth dashed by an algorithm, reapply the lipstick and keep trying. The company has indexed more than 100 million public profiles.
Even if you’re not online much, your reputation there could still affect you elsewhere. Future reputation scoring will take this into account—not always for the worst. Take a woman of 45, just divorced. She didn’t buy her home, hasn’t worked in years and seems a bad bet for a loan. She’s also a mother, a volunteer, trustworthy. From alternative online data—maybe a church-group blog—a reputation score might build a composite that’s a truer gauge of her risk-worthiness. Some scenarios could be more dastardly, of course. Either way, keeping the right company online, as off, is a good idea. What others say about you matters more and more. […]
There is a difference between professional and casual reconnaissance. The ability that you and I have to search online and “forensically re-create” other people is very high now, said [Owen Tripp, co-founder and chief operating officer of Reputation.com], “and the risk we’re willing to take on people today is very low.” So we rely on what’s online, often what’s on the first search page, to make quick decisions—whom to hire, ask to dinner, lend money to. Two minutes of Googling can make us unjustifiably confident.
We might have the wrong person. The National Security Agency calls this “the 27 Mohammeds problem.” How do we sort the one terrorist from 26 law-abiding U.S. citizens? An error could affect any of us.