ScreenDiscussion

Blogging background checking and security issues

3.29.2005

Public Availability of Private Information

PACER, an online search for criminal records at the federal level is available to the public. For a small fee, anyone can do a criminal records search. The nice thing is that it’s searchable by district, which means that someone only has to know very generally where a person has lived in order to check for records. Records at the federal level are usually only the high level cases, but the greater area coverage and low price still makes it a nice supplement 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. A search on a name like “John Thompson” will likely return criminal records in just about every federal district, and since only names are accessible to the public it can be pretty difficult to determine whether or not the records belong to the individual in question.

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.

Catch-22? I think so. However, I also think there are some potential solutions. Very basically, courts can take the information they have and just report the last four digits of the SSN. Some courts do this already and it seems like a no-brainer to me (except that PACER’s decision indicates otherwise). Moving forward, another solution would be to incorporate biometrics identification methods into the criminal justice system. There would have to be some cooperation on the part of the employment screening industry, employers and the criminal system, but I can see it being a viable option down the road. Fingerprints are obviously already being used, in some ways very efficiently, but they have yet to be used on a large scale in the public sector.

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