It is a fair guess that just about anyone uses the Internet regularly has run some kind of search on themselves, a future employer, their co-workers, etc. Reviewing a Facebook profile or Googling a name are two common techniques. Capitalizing on this sleuthing, several companies now offer or are developing cell phone applications that will deliver far more detailed reports on prospective romantic partners. Stud or Dud promises bankruptcies, stable address histories, marriages and divorces, property ownership, criminal/sex offender records, business licenses, evictions, and “other useful facts.” Are They Really Single, an application from the same developer, will provide marriage and divorce records. Similarly, DateCheck will provide criminal offenses, home details including square footage and taxes, educational background, the names and ages of all persons living at their address, horoscopes, and much more.
In an interview with CNN, Bryce Lane, president of PeopleFinders Network, said that all information was publicly available and had just been combined into one database in order to facilitate accessibility. But the increased accessibility raises many areas of concern. For instance, a man who learns a woman’s name – and nothing but her name – at a bar can use one of the above sites to identify current or previous roommates and pressure them for information regarding that woman. The comments on one blog suggest that such concerns are not likely to weigh heavily on the target audience: readers of Rosa Golijan’s post on the applications commented far more frequently on her musings about which boyfriend took her stockings than on her reference to “creepy” stalkers taking advantage of the applications. To take another example, an employer might not be able to resist the ability to easily access this information when making employment decisions, even if they may not be able to legally rely upon the information.
The potential for misuse of the information is only compounded by the potential for confusing one person with another, especially since the misidentified person has no way of knowing that someone has accessed inaccurate information regarding them. A search on Stud or Dud for the author’s full name disclosed her correct age, place of birth, and the full names of her parents. But searching for the author’s phone number turned up a 107-year-old Georgia women with a very large family. A potential date or employer might not confuse those two, but what about the potential for confusing one of the more than fifty John Smith’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan? Let us say that there are two John Smith’s in the same Ann Arbor zip code who are between 45 and 55; we’ll call them JS1 and JS2. JS1 has a mortgage on one residential property at which he has lived for the past twelve years, has always filed his taxes on time, and is married. JS2 filed bankruptcy at least once in the past, has moved frequently throughout the midwest region in the past six years, and rents an apartment with two roommates. A potential employer wishes to hire someone for a position that requires allocating and tracking financial resources, and the employer hopes that the new hire will remain in the position for at least three years. The employer would likely prefer someone with JS1′s profile, but the employer running a search on one of the above sites might confuse JS2′s profile with JS1′s and deny JS1 the position. JS1 would never know the employer’s search and so would not be able to correct the error.
Paul Stevens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse argues that that the above problems could be mitigated if information brokers were subject to the same or similar regulations as the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In particular, Mr. Stevens wants free annual disclosures to individuals, the right to dispute inaccurate information, and time limits on reporting adverse information. See also Online and Offline Collection of Consumer Information: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, 111th Cong. (2009) (testimony of Pam Dixon, Executive Director, World Privacy Forum). Lane does point out in his CNN interview that individuals can have their information removed from his sites, although he suggests that only “criminals” would do so.
Other concerns are rooted in a more visceral feeling that most people do not need the information that is now at their fingertips. A bank considering whether to finance a loan has good reason to know how many properties the applicant has. The promoters of DateCheck (“look up before you hook up”) would likely argue that a woman at the bar has a strong interest in the martial status of the man who just bought her a drink. But an idly curious co-worker or classmate? The undeniably correct assertion that this information is publicly available does not necessarily justify the ease with which it can be accessed. In the past, it took some effort to obtain the information: a call to the relevant records departments, maybe a delay before delivery. Though it was not the goal of the systems by which information could be obtained, the inconveniences may have limited access to those with a strong motivation to know. Perhaps, as Lane suggest, in an age where we meet new people at a rapid pace without any means of confirming their backgrounds, we do need some means of confirming the information they provide about themselves. Or maybe we should slow down a little and establish some relationships the old-fashioned way? If the latter, consumers will require at least some greater control over the information made available through information brokers, whether that information is packaged as a dating tool or in some other format.