Information Intersection > Troutman Sanders LLP

The Marketplace for Personal Information

Posted: February 2, 2011

If you are like most people, chances are that you have at some point “Googled” a person’s name to get some background information. However, there are a number of other web sites on which you can search for personal background information. There are dozens of new options out there in cyberspace these days.  Sites such as spokeo.com, zabasearch.com, 123people.com, pipl.com, intelius.com, spock.com and wink.com are some of the more recent market entries.  (A more complete list is at privacyrights.org). For a price, these sites promise access to all kinds of personal information in one simple search, including information such as phone numbers, current and prior addresses, marital status, telephone numbers, birth date, mortgage information, and house value, all gathered primarily from public databases. These sites often just collect information that is available from various scattered public records sources.  But their aggregated reports illustrate how much information is in fact publicly available in the age of digital information.

Some sites also gather information from social networking sites such as facebook.com, linkedin.com, friendster.com and myspace.com and picture sharing sites such as flickr.com. Information that is out there, but which would take a long time to gather on your own, is now potentially available just by typing in a person’s first and last name. And the cost is, relatively speaking, a pittance – as low as $2.95 per month. 

As sites like this gain in popularity, some businesses are starting to use them to gather information about current or potential employees, consultants, executives, etc. Be careful, however, as the information available through some of these sites might be incomplete, inaccurate or dated.  If you enter your own name into sites that offer a free “glimpse” of the type of information available for sale, you may find some incorrect details about yourself.  The reality is that most online information brokers, in their current versions, are not designed to be used for employment screening purposes.  They typically do not meet or even purport to meet the strict rules that apply to pre-employment screening databases.  If a company does need to conduct a background check, it should consider using a long-established, well-recognized and reputable service that specializes in employment background checks.  These services have strict accuracy and correction procedures and will meet other obligations imposed by federal or state law.    There are many (see National Association of Professional Background Screeners for more information). 

 Many businesses use services of various types that provide access to personal information about consumers.  Such services may be designed to prevent fraud, to double-check customer addresses, to enable deliveries, or to perform any of an array of other business functions.  It is very important that those businesses clearly communicate to their employees the “rules of the road” for accessing any services that include consumer information.  Certainly, the bare minimum required by good practices is to have clear written rules telling employees that consumer information held by a business or obtainable through a service at work should be used only for legitimate authorized business purposes.   

In addition, recognizing that some information sources are not suitable for all business uses,  employers should caution employees that third party data sources about individuals should only be used in ways that have been approved by the employer.  Absent such a direction, for example, an enterprising manager may freelance on the internet and use an Online Information Broker to conduct his or her own background screen after interviewing a job candidate.   

Many people are only now learning about the readily accessible market for personal information.  Because the information brokerage business is relatively new to the public consciousness, we thought a brief Q&A would be helpful.

Questions and Answers about Online Information Brokers

1. Can Online Information Brokers legally provide this information? The information that is compiled is primarily gathered from public databases and websites where you have posted your information. Just as Google is free to provide links to such information,  Online Information Brokers are free to aggregate publicly available information. 

2. How do you remove your information so it does not show up on the searches? There is no central database where you can register and opt out of having Online Information Brokers aggregate your information. You have to go to each Online Information Broker’s website and read the terms and conditions, frequently asked questions and the privacy policies to find the procedure of opting out. Once the information is removed, you should check back intermittently to make sure the information has not reappeared. When on Online Information Broker uploads new or updated databases, your information may reappear. If it does, you have to again contact the site and request the information be removed.  Note that not all Online Information Brokers offer an opt out option.  Just as you cannot opt out of a “Credit Bureau” if you have poor credit, you cannot opt out of the databases of Information Brokers’ publicly available data sets.

3. If the information shown is inaccurate, how can I correct it? Online Information Brokers gather information from a variety of sources, some of which are public databases that may have errors or may be out of date.   If you notice inaccuracies, you should contact the Online Information Broker.  You can find out the source of the information or request that the information be corrected.  The best approach may be to determine the original source of an error and correct the mistake at the point of origination.  If the original error occurred at the county courthouse, that in the end is the only effective place to correct the error.

4. Is there a governmental agency that is responsible for regulating Online Information Brokers? The Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General claim the authority under the Federal Trade Commission Act and its state law counterparts to regulate the activities of Online Information Brokers,

5. How can I keep Online Information Brokers from listing my Information? There is not any single method that is 100% effective.  After all, much of the reported information is from public records such as real estate filings or criminal records that are available to anyone who requests them.  One cannot stop newspapers from publishing that data and, similarly, the public cannot prevent Online Information Brokers from publishing it in most instances.  But there are other sources of information that a consumer can readily control.  For example, review your settings on all the social networking sites and set the privacy levels to the highest possible. The best advice for online postings and sharing of information is when in doubt, don’t post it.

For more information, contact Shobhan Thakkar or John Hutchins.

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