Editorial: Let’s Be Careful About Personal Info Databases

 

The debate over the renewal of the U.S. Patriot Act (as of 2006) raises a much bigger question. Government is certainly keeping tabs on American citizens and immigrants and making watch lists, arguably to prevent another Armageddon-style terrorist attack. It appears that private interests are doing the same, and sometimes they even have access to government lists. We need to stop an take a look at this.

 

I can remember, back around 1973, when I was “coming out” the second time and going into New York City for social reasons after spending days at my job in suburban New Jersey, my father kept warning me, “they’ll have you followed.” I thought this was ludicrous, and even in the Nixon era it was. Or was it? David Mixner, in his book Stranger Among Friends, discloses just such a sting performed on him by the Hoover FBI in 1969.

 

There are a number of lists, and the worst abuses seem to occur with air travel, when people are mistakenly placed on “no fly” lists by the Transportation Security Agency. This may happen because of name synonyms. There are other lists, such as the Blocked Persons list, that apartment property owners can access through various applicant clearing companies. There is little information about how accurate these lists are.

 

We can backtrack this discussion a moment, and think: what is the most commonly accesses list of a person’s behavior? The credit report, of course, and there are three major companies that maintain consumer databases. (There used to be five, and I worked for one of them, Chilton, in the 1980s, before it was bought by TRW, which then spun it off as Experian, ironically with a major operation in the same city, Dallas. Maybe I could have survived all of this!)

 

Of course, we all know that consumers get a “grade” in the manner of a FICO score from Fair Isaac, based on the credit report history from any one of these companies or from a combination of all three.  I actually once worked on a project to feed data to Fair Isaac—in good old mainframe IBM assembler. Those were the days, my friend. We all know that consumers must monitor their credit reports for identity theft, and this begs the question as to why there need to be so many other lists and companies trying to make money off of them.

 

 If you apply for a retail job, for example, you may find that the retailer will run a background check on you with its own service company. They say they need to check public records for criminal convictions. If you rent an apartment, the property company will use a service from one of three or four major tenant check companies. What other information do they need? Well, all of it is legitimate and reasonably factual, such as evictions or broken leases. Perhaps they will find out about bankruptcies or civil judgments from public records. At least they will say this.

 

All of this goes on in a culture where there is a proliferation of companies offering to do background checks on people. You can find them easily on the web, and for $20 or so check up on anyone.

 

All of this goes on while a new debate has surfaced, particularly in the later part of 2005, about the way people are promoting themselves on the Internet. We’ve heard a lot about universities and employers checking “myspace.com” and similar profiles of students, and this seems to be getting extended to employers checking on off-duty Internet activity of associates and job applicants.  Employers may be particularly concerned about applicants to present a lot of personal material, even if associated with legitimate political or social activism. There is a developing notion in some quarters that self-promotion in a public arena without some kind of measurable accountability to others is “unprofessional” and dangerous—although I think this notion is related to turf protection. As I’ve noted before on other pages on this site, this may be motivated by legitimate concerns because some jobs require that an individual present a public profile to the world for the sake of his employer. But employers must be very careful when they do this (with search engines like Google) and that they inform their associates and applicants in advance of their “right of publicity” policies.

 

There has also emerged a public paranoia about sexual predators. This has emerged with some sensational media reports (NBC “Dateline” stings) about chatrooms and charges against teachers. States do maintain sexual offender lists of convicted offenders, and this practice is all right in so far as it “innocent until proven guilty.” However, the media has gone out of its way to publicized accused offenders in some cases. The pedophilia problem has attracted vigilante groups like “Perverted Justice.” I would wonder if this would encourage the practice of scouring the Internet for evidence of inappropriate sexual interests or propensities on the part of an applicant. It’s easy to imagine detective hanging signs and offering to do this.

 

An Ohio newspaper reports a plan to  develop a "civil registry" of suspected sex offenders who have not even been charged with a crime. This draconian idea was proposed by the Ohio legislature and the story published in the Toledo Blade on August 29, 2006, at this link. The law appears to specify a procedure where a county prosecutor, the state attorney general, or a victim could ask a judge to declare someone a sex offender even without a formal civil or criminal complaint. Presumably a declaration could be based on a person's having contacted an undercover police officer (or even Perverted Justice volunteers) in a chat room when looking for minors, or even be based on a persons own reckless statements on the Internet. It is even conceivable it could name out-of-state residents at some point. It would work in a way similar to Ohio's Megan's law. "The person's name, address, and photograph would be placed on a new Internet database and the person would be subjected to the same registration and community notification requirements and restrictions on where he could live." The legislation has been moved out of committee but not yet passed the Ohio legislature.

 

Peter Fisher, in his early 1970s book The Gay Mystique, once commented about the proliferation of shoddy detective agencies that tried to ferret out gays in the old physical world days. The military still tries to do this with its witch-hunts motivated by “don’t ask don’t tell”. Now, in the wake of 9/11, we seem to be looking for “witches” who might bring terrorism to our neighborhoods. And we look for other boogeymen, in the name of protecting our kids. But when we will know how to draw the line?

 

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Note: In May 2006 the major media reported that the National Security Agency had been building a database on about 10 million personal telephone and cell conversations, supposedly only the numbers and not contents, based on certain unknown parameters. Could this extend to emails and web search requests?

 

©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use