Introduction to Social Media Investigation: A Hands-on Approach, 1st Edition (2015)
Chapter 12. LinkedIn
LinkedIn is a social networking Web site where people maintain profiles and create connections with associates. It is explicitly designed for professional interactions. The site has roughly 200 million members, with roughly one-third of its traffic coming from the United States. Profiles are extensive and focus on education, work experience, projects a person has worked on, and a list of skills that others endorse. This chapter presents an overview of the different types of information people share on the site and how to find those people.
One of the best stories of using LinkedIn for investigation comes from Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys. The book is about a group of guys who work on Wall Street and realize that a type of computerized trading, high-frequency trading (HFT), has biased the equity market in favor of the big investment banks. The group, the eponymous flash boys, set out to investigate the big banks and expose how they are using HFT.
As part of their search, one of the men, John Schwall, begins searching for people involved in HFT on LinkedIn. However, many banks did not want to appear as though they were involved in HFT. Thus, they did not advertise their HFT groups, and their employees did not have titles that reflected this.
Schwall was determined to identify the people involved in HFT. He began with one person, Josh Stampfli, who had joined the electronic trading group at Credit Suisse after working for now-disgraced investor Bernie Madoff. After identifying Stampfli as being involved with HFT at Credit Suisse, Schwall looked him up on LinkedIn and, from there, found a list of his contacts. From there, he followed to a list of their contacts, and so on. Among the people he came across were dozens of programmers who openly listed their responsibilities as including programming for HFT. At the end of his search, Schwall was able to construct the entire organizational chart for the group at Credit Suisse undertaking HFT.
Description of the Site
LinkedIn is a social networking website where people maintain profiles and create connections with associates. It is explicitly designed for professional interactions. The site has roughly 200 million members, with roughly one-third of its traffic coming from the United States. Profiles are extensive and focus on education, work experience, projects a person has worked on, and a list of skills that others endorse.
Since LinkedIn is very professional, instead of creating a fake account for our example user Malcom, we will look at the author’s profile in this chapter. Pictures and names of other users are blurred out in the images to protect their privacy.
The main activities on LinkedIn are profile maintenance and adding contacts.
A user’s profile consists of a number of sections, set up to approximate what you might find on a resume. They include work experience, education, projects, publications, skills, and organizations. Figure 12.1 shows the author’s profile with summary information and the beginning of the experience section.
FIGURE 12.1 A LinkedIn profile page including summary information and some background.
Because professional networking is the core of LinkedIn’s model, there are some important things to note about accessing information on the site:
• If you are not logged in, you see a different version of a person’s profile than if you are logged in.
• If you have an account and are logged in, when you visit a person’s profile, your visit is logged and information about your visit is shared with the target. (You can browse “anonymously” while logged in, but you need to change specific settings to make it happen.)
This makes LinkedIn a significant exception to the general rule that your social media browsing will not be tracked.
Figure 12.1 shows a profile’s appearance when the viewer is logged in. If the viewer is not logged in, a more résumé-like profile is shown. Figure 12.2 depicts the author’s profile in the logged-out view.
FIGURE 12.2 A profile view when the viewer is not logged in to LinkedIn.
To create a social connection on LinkedIn, the “Connect” button next to the person’s photo on their profile page (also shown in Figure 12.1) will launch a dialogue. The person initiating the connection must indicate he knows the person he is connecting to, either through their work at the same organization, through a shared educational institution, or by providing an email address. This is designed to limit spam and anonymous connections, since the site wants to encourage real-life connections. All relationships on LinkedIn are reciprocal; when one person requests a connection, the other must approve it.
Once people have made connections, there are two main activities: updates and endorsements.
Updates on LinkedIn are similar to posts you might see on Facebook or Twitter. When a person posts an update, it appears on the home page feed of their connections. However, one critical difference between LinkedIn and other sites is that a person’s updates cannot be retrieved through their profile. Essentially, if someone posts an update, the only way to find it is for one of their contacts to scroll through all of the updates they can see in hopes of finding it. This emphasizes the relatively low-importance updates have on LinkedIn. The relationships are the main focus.
As part of a relationship, a person can endorse someone else’s skills. Figure 12.3 shows the list of skills on the author’s profile along with the number of people who have endorsed that she has that skill.
FIGURE 12.3 A list of endorsements for the author’s LinkedIn page.
Viewing the Viewers
Finally, because social connections are so important on LinkedIn, it has a very unique feature: a user can see who has been looking at his profile. Figure 12.4 shows the author’s page of views. Faces and names of people who viewed the profile are blurred for anonymity.
FIGURE 12.4 The LinkedIn page for a user that shows who has visited their profile recently. It is rare among social media websites that a user can see who has been viewing their information.
The view in Figure 12.4 is what someone with a free LinkedIn profile can see. People who pay to upgrade their accounts can see additional information and longer lists of people who have visited their page.
Because LinkedIn is a professional site, it has demographics that are quite different from most social media sites. It tends to have more men than women, about 62% to 38%. The population of users is older than many other sites. The 25-34, 35-44, and 45-54-year-old age groups each make up about 20% of the users on the site. Users are more affluent. Eighteen percent of users make between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, and 14% make over $150,000. In that same vein, users tend to have higher education levels than the overall US population; 78% have a college degree, and 27% have attended graduate school. Ethnically, the site is dominated by Caucasians, who account for 79% of users, but Asians are represented more highly than in the overall population, accounting for 6% of the users.
Overall, if you are looking for a professional adult, there is a good chance they maintain a LinkedIn profile.
If you are not logged in to LinkedIn, you can search for people on the main page. Figure 12.5 shows this page. While it largely features information about creating an account, lower down on the page, below the main white section, is an option to “Find a colleague.” This includes first and last name boxes. The results of this search will be similar to what is shown in Figure 12.2. If multiple people match the search, you will see short summaries for each, similar to what appears in the top section of Figure 12.2 next to the photo.
FIGURE 12.5 If you are not logged in to LinkedIn, you can search for people with the “Find a colleague” section that appears under the main white part of the page. In this example, “Jennifer” and “Golbeck” are filled in the first and last name sections.
You cannot access any more information about people from this point unless you log in to LinkedIn.
When you are logged in, you get a denser set of search result as shown in Figure 12.6. From here, you can click on a person’s name to see their full profile as it appears in Figure 12.1. (Remember: visiting someone’s LinkedIn page while you are logged in leaves a trace that the person can see.) Either a link to your profile or a slightly anonymized version of your profile without a link will be shown to the user on the page shown in Figure 12.4. This means you should carefully consider how you browse someone’s LinkedIn profile.
FIGURE 12.6 To change your privacy settings, including the ability to browse anonymously, click “Review” next to “Privacy & Settings.”
Via Known Associates
On other sites, it is possible to find someone through their known associates, but this ability is much more limited on LinkedIn. You cannot see someone’s social connections if you are not logged in to LinkedIn. If you are logged in, you can see how many connections a target has (this is in the lower right corner of the top box in Figure 12.1). However, you can only see a full list of who those connections are when you have a LinkedIn relationship with the target. If you are exploring the target’s profile and you are not connected to the target, you can only see people who are your mutual connections. If you have no mutual connections, you cannot see anyone on the target’s connection list.
Thus, if you do not know where the target’s account is, you may be able to find him by connecting with his known associates. This allows you to browse the associate’s connections. Without connections to people close to the target, this technique will not be effective on LinkedIn.
As mentioned above, LinkedIn records information about your visits to other people’s profiles. This is an important factor to consider if you do not want targets to know that you have visited their profiles. If you want to browse anonymously, you must change a setting.
In the upper right corner, mouse over your profile picture and click “Review” next to “Privacy & Settings” (see Figure 12.6).
About halfway down the privacy settings page, find the section labeled Privacy Controls (see Figure 12.7). Click on “Select what others see when you’ve viewed their profile.”
FIGURE 12.7 Click “Select what others see when you’ve viewed their profile” (highlighted here in blue (dark grey in print version)) to change the privacy settings for your browsing on LinkedIn.
The pop-up will show three options. To browse anonymously, choose the bottom option, “You will be totally anonymous.” The middle “anonymous” option will not truly anonymized your browsing. See Figure 12.8 for the options in this window.
FIGURE 12.8 Choose the bottom option “You will be totally anonymous” to prevent people from seeing your information when you browse their profile.
There are two major types of data you can obtain on LinkedIn for a target:
• Profile information is accessible on a target’s page, as shown in Figures 12.1 and 12.2. This includes work history, interests, projects they have worked on, and publications.
• Contact information (a list of the target’s connections) is available for people with whom you have a LinkedIn relationship. In Figure 12.1, you can see a number of contacts in the lower right of the summary profile box toward the top of the page. This number appears in blue and is “458” in Figure 12.1. Clicking this number will take you to a list of the person’s contacts. If he has not made the contacts private, you will be able to view a list of names and basic profile information, and then, click links to see the contacts’ profile pages.
Privacy Levels and Access
Users can limit the accessibility of some of their profile information. They can restrict who can see their profile photo, limiting it to only connections or only people within the user’s network. They can also restrict the visibility of their connections (i.e., friends). Those are visible to the user’s other connections by default, but they can be limited so only the user himself can view them.
Because LinkedIn is business-oriented, most of the case studies for how it is used in investigation deal with hiring and firing decisions.
Heidi Nazarudin, president of bloggerbabes.com, reports how she has used LinkedIn in her hiring decisions:
I was looking for a Content Manager and, there were about 6-7 shortlisted candidates but one candidate stood out considerably due to the fact that …checking out her LinkedIn profile, had about 2000 + connections from the print and digital media industries. Upon asking her about this she told me she once worked as an event manager for a media association and those people were contacts she had made from past events. Even though she was less experienced than the other candidates, due to the fact that she had valuable connections for me, I hired her. My hunch proved right and until today, her contacts proved valuable regularly for me time and time again.
Not Getting Hired
A poor LinkedIn profile can also prevent someone from getting a job. Michelle Campbell of the advertising agency Potratz explained to me that the HR director for their company had looked up an applicant on LinkedIn. For an advertising company, someone’s ability to present themselves well online speaks directly to their ability to sell products. This particular candidate had an extensive list of past jobs on LinkedIn, but none of these matched with experience he had discussed with the HR manager. The disconnect made her question all the experience the candidate reported, and he was not hired.
Family lawyers have also reported to me that they use LinkedIn. For them, it serves more as background information. In particular, they describe using it to determine someone’s employment status (which they may be hiding to reduce alimony or child support obligations).
LinkedIn is a business-oriented professional network. As such, the information there is mainly relevant to someone’s work experience and employment information. The major consideration for an investigator using LinkedIn is that it is hard to access information without having an account and being logged in and that your visits to a person’s page are logged and visible to them. You can adjust this, but if you want to browse anonymously, it is important to change this setting first.