Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


"Public Availability of Private Information"

Screendiscussion makes a case for criminal records searching as an adjunct to a background check:

One of the biggest downsides is that the records can only be searched by name, an occurrence that is becoming more common even at the lower courts. This might not be a problem if the name being searched is pretty unique, but if someone has been cursed with a common name then look out.

While it makes sense to curb identify theft by not providing a person’s name, date of birth and Social Security Number to the general public, in practice it’s a double-edged sword. Identity theft is limited, but it also means that an employer has to deal with how to use the information in deciding whether or not to make a job offer. There have been plenty of situations where a person wasn’t offered a job because of faulty information retrieved in a background check, and this newer practice doesn’t help things much.

I think the problem with this is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy: As national criminal background checks become possible, for liability-avoidance, they become mandatory. As they become mandatory, more and more data is made public. But they’ll never be perfect. So should we be going in that direction, or choosing to keep background checks expensive, so that employers are less tempted to perform them?

2 comments on ""Public Availability of Private Information""

  • Cypherpunk says:

    Do criminals have a right to privacy, to keep their criminal background confidential? I don’t think society would make that choice. The inevitable consequence is that criminal background checks will only get easier as time goes on. We need to deal with that reality and not pretend that we can make it go away by raising prices.

  • Geoff says:

    What about people who are charged but whose cases are dismissed? Do they automatically lose their right to privacy too?
    The cost mentioned above is not a result of a choice made by companies. Quite the opposite – the background checking industry is extremely competitive and prices are kept as low as possible. The issue is that it is just plain expensive to do a thorough. accurate background check because of all the legwork involved. Information compiled into “national??? databases (a quality national search doesn’t yet exist) is cheaper but highly inaccurate.
    I agree that we’ll get there eventually, but the cost will be high and there will need to be a high level of cooperation among all law enforcement and judicial agencies. I don’t see it happening soon.

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