Edward Socorro had a good thing going as a sales manager with Hilton Hotels Corp. But not long after he started, a company hired by Hilton to do background checks on new employees reported that Socorro once spent six months in jail.
In reality, Socorro was no ex-con. He protested that the background check was wrong. But still he was fired. And although he later settled a lawsuit against Hilton, the damage was done.
Socorro learned the hard way about an increasing danger in our ever-more-networked society: the reliance of corporations and governments on commercially accessible databases that mine the paper trails of our lives. It figures to be among vital privacy issues garnering wider attention in 2004.
Databases have become remarkably efficient and inexpensive to query. Many employers, schools and even volunteer organizations now trust them in making decisions about whom to take on and whom to avoid.
But these databases are not infallible. They can be misinterpreted or only partially accurate, showing arrests or criminal records that were later wiped clean – just enough to cost someone a job.
Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups are alarmed. They saysome of these background checks could violate federal employment laws and credit-reporting rules that let consumers examine information on file about them.
At the very least, the Internet has made it far easier for anyone to obtain not only someone else's birthdates and Social Security numbers but also liens, lawsuits, divorces and other personal and potentially embarrassing – but technically public – information.
Such material was once available only to people who bothered to dig through musty courthouse files.
“I consider the issue of public records on the Internet to be one of the most challenging public policy issues of our time,” said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
Activists have been sounding alarms for years about the decline of privacy in the digital age, with the public sometimes responding. [Privacy Digest]