Private Information Made Public

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Access to public information has increased in the last few years, with millions of users on Facebook, geo-locating data is available from user’s smartphones, and user’s web history and search histories are being stored for private businesses. Information that people once kept guarded is now available with a quick search query online, available to future employers, friends, families, bosses, and even Friday night’s date. The purpose of data collecting is two-fold; the first being to examine the data for research purposes, the second being a variety of personal reasons. While access to information can be an exceptional tool in research, it can also be an invasion of privacy, especially if access to some information becomes problematic for employment or entrance to universities. 

There are many advantages to access to information on an individual. For example, a private citizen may want to run a background check on a babysitter to ensure the safety of his or her child. Companies want to know that they are hiring an employee who is a possible risk for unethical work behaviors. The information is also gathered for research purposes, and “Governments regularly farm out their data to companies that prepare and package records,” (niemanlabs.org) to create databases of information such as websites like SpotCrime so that people can be aware of crimes that are occurring in their area so they can take precautions, if possible. Another organization that gathers information is LexisNexis Accurint that is purportedly used by private investigators to provide, according to their website, “over 34 billion current public records” to verify identities and run background checks. Some of this information can be used to protect businesses, reinforce the Fair Housing Act, and protect individuals; however, in the hands of other individuals, personal data may become a weapon against the user.

The disadvantage to public access of private data by the general public is that opens the possibility for unfair practices or may include data that is for a different realm of audience. For example, an employee may post, “I hate my boss” on a particularly bad day and even if the privacy settings are vulnerable for even a short time; the employee may face discipline for sharing this information. While it is still perfectly acceptable for an employee to say this over drinks on a Friday afternoon, putting this thought in writing may bring disciplinary action against the individual. On a more formalized note, some information may create security loopholes that allow hackers to gain access to the account. For example, accounts generally have a set of security questions, such as “What was your high school mascot?” If a simple name search yields that the person attended a school where a bulldog was the mascot, the person now has the information needed to answer one of the security questions and may lead to gaining access to an account.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ensures that information “provides individuals with access to many types of records that are exempt from access under the Privacy Act, including many categories of personal information” (CDT.org) and was written in 1966 and was later amended in 1996. The law ensured that citizens can gather specific pieces of information, mostly relating to financial and property ownership, which can be very important information for private citizens or companies to access. While the law itself protects the availability of information, technology was quite different in 1996 and this is where the problem lies. In 2013 more data is available online than in 1996; therefore, the guidelines need to be updated to adjust for medical records, employment records, and other sensitive data.

There are several electronic privacy laws, however, the biggest issue with the current law is that it was written in 1986 and has become outdated. The New York Times discusses the types of information collected by companies that users share online, including “Names, addresses, pictures, even our precise locations as measured by the geo-location sensor embedded in Internet-enabled smartphones,” which is generally used for purposes of gathering demographics information for marketing. The ACLU has approached this issue and is calling for Congress to modernize the ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act) to better protect users. They believe that four elements need to be addressed in the new ECPA: To protect all personal electronic information, protect location information, update law enforcement surveillance protocols, require the same laws regarding illegally gained electronic information, and protect users from unreasonable examinations into their personal records (ACLU).

Another source of private citizen information are paid websites that allow clients to access personal information, including credit history, criminal background check, and 

“Citizens who feel protected from  misuse of their personal information feel free to engage in commerce, to participate in the political process, or to seek needed healthcare - data sharing is critical to healthcare” (Whitehouse)

Freebackgroundcheck.org offers a free service to search for information, including recorded documents, arrest records, genealogy records, lien records, bankruptcy records, and other various pieces of information. Yahoo! News recently reported that a company called Corra Group has started social media background checks that are FCRA compliant. The article says they are geared toward employers, the program scans for posts that are “explicitly sexual, racial, or misogynist, or where threats of violence are really alarming.” The company assures that it filters out information that can be considered as breaking anti-discrimination laws. 

Protecting one’s information online is important and, if done proactively, can be relatively simple. As a compilation of many online sources, the following are some tips on keeping private information as such:

1. Read and understand the privacy policy of a website before setting up an account

2. Examine options in privacy settings- turn settings up or customize for greatest protection

3. Be aware of what information is already shared about you

4. Clean up the content Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

5. Remember that anything you post may be tied to your IP address, e-mail, or other identifying information

Out of the above suggestions, examining the privacy policies and options on websites is the one that is most highly repeated on the ACLU and government organization websites. Constant updates of websites and of the User’s Policy can also change the privacy settings on the account, so the ACLU suggests reading the information provided before clicking “Ok” or “Accept.” 

While it is important for the United States to continue the ideas of the Freedom of Information Act, it is equally important for laws to be updated as new technologies are released to compensate for the new data that may be available to the public and to businesses. Some information is useful to have access to, a bank may want to know if a future employee has recently gone bankrupt; but other information can be harmful if shared, such as a future employee not getting hired because of information that is illegal to consider.

Works Cited

Accurint. (n.d.). LexisNexis Accurint. Retrieved May 1, 2013, from http://www.accurint.com/

Basichis, Gordon. "Corra Group Now Offers Social Media Background Checks for Employment Screening - Yahoo! News." Yahoo! News - Latest News & Headlines. Yahoo!, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <http://news.yahoo.com/corra-group-now-offers-social- media-background-checks-120039248.html>.

"CDT: Online information." Existing Federal Laws. Center for Democracy and Technology, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <https://www.cdt.org/privacy/guide/protect/laws.php#foia

Ellis, Justin . "How public is public data? With Public Engines v. ReportSee, new access standards could emerge » Nieman Journalism Lab." Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism. Nieman Labs, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. <http://www.niemanlab.org/2011/02/how-public-is-public-data-with-public-engines-v-reportsee-new-access-standards-could-emerge/>.

"Free Background Check." Background Checks. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <Freebackgroundcheck.org >.

"Privacy Statement." White House Policy and Statement. White House, n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2013. <www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/privacy-final.pdf>.

Sengupta, Somini. "Europe Moves to Protect Online Privacy - NYTimes.com."New York Times Multimedia. The New York Times, 2 May 2012. Web. 30 Apr. 2013.<http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/05/sunday-review/europe-moves-to-protect-online-privacy.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.