Statistical Analysis of Online Ads for Internet Data Broker Website Uncovers Possible Racial Profiling

A Harvard University professor who ran a statistical analysis of online ads used by an Internet data broker website that suggested certain names may have arrest records uncovered what she described as possible racial profiling when she found the company’s advertising “disproportionately” used the word “arrested” for black-identifying names even when a person had no arrest record, according to the Huffington Post. The story is available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/25/racial-profiling-online-ads_n_2186409.html.

The Huffington Post reports that Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard University professor of government with a doctorate in computer science, “ran more than 120,000 searches for names primarily given to either black or white children, testing ads delivered for 2,400 real names 50 times each” after learning from a colleague that her own name was in an online ad that read “Latanya Sweeney, arrested?” The preliminary results of Sweeny’s research of the data broker’s online ads uncovered the following:

  • The name “Ebony Jefferson” often turned up on the online data broker’s ad reading “Ebony Jefferson, arrested?” but an ad for “Emily Jefferson” would read “We found Emily Jefferson.”
  • Randomly chosen black-identifying first names such as “Deshawn,” “Latisha,” or “Latanya” often produced online ad copy with the words “arrest” or “arrested” while less ethnic-sounding first names matched with the same last names such as “Williams” or “Smith” typically did not.
  • Names primarily used for African-American babies such as “Tyrone,” “Darnell,” and “Ebony” generated the word “arrest” in the online data broker’s ad copy between 75 percent and 96 percent of the time. Names assigned at birth primarily to whites led to the word “arrest” appearing only between zero and 9 percent of the time.
  • A few names predominantly given to white babies fell outside of these patterns. For example, the name “Brad” produced an ad with the word “arrest” 62 percent to 65 percent of the time.
  • The data broker’s ads appeared whether or not the name had an arrest record attached to it.

The Huffington Post also reports that the Internet data broker company using the online ads declined to comment on the story and did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls. While data brokers can sell arrest records if they do not run afoul of government regulations on using the data “to determine creditworthiness, insurance or job suitability,” data brokers are attracting attention “both from government and consumers concerned about possible abuse” as technology such as the Internet and social media has created “all sorts of opportunities for commercialization of data.”

Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has focused more attention on data brokers. As reported earlier by ESR News, in June of 2012 data broker Spokeo, Inc. agreed to pay a $800,000 fine to settle FTC charges that the company marketed profiles to the human resources, background screening, and recruiting industries without taking steps to protect consumers required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Information about the FTC case, the first to address the sale of Internet data for employment screening, is at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2012/06/spokeo.shtm.

These stories reveal the difference between a data broker offering instant searches of arrest records online and a professional background screening firm that performs actual court searches with FCRA compliance. For information about background checks, visit Employment Screening Resources (ESR) – ‘The Background Check Authority’ and nationwide screening company accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS®) – at http://www.esrcheck.com/, call toll free 888.999.4474, or email customerservice@esrcheck.com.

Sources:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/25/racial-profiling-online-ads_n_2186409.html
http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2012/06/spokeo.shtm
http://www.esrcheck.com/wordpress/2012/06/13/ftc-fines-data-broker-spokeo-800000-dollars-to-settle-charges-of-violating-fair-credit-reporting-act/

About Employment Screening Resources (ESR):

Founded by safe hiring expert Attorney Les Rosen in 1997, Employment Screening Resources (ESR) – ‘The Background Check AuthoritySM’– provides accurate and actionable information that empowers employers to make informed hiring decisions for the benefit of their organizations, employees, and the public. CEO Rosen literally wrote the book on background checks with “The Safe Hiring Manual” and ESR is accredited by The National Association of Professional Background Screeners (NAPBS), a distinction held by a small percent of screening firms. Employers choosing ESR know they have selected an agency meeting the highest industry standards. To learn more, visit http://www.esrcheck.com, call 888.999.4474, or email customerservice@esrcheck.com.

About ESR News:

The Employment Screening Resources (ESR) News blog – ESR News – provides employment screening information for employers, recruiters, and jobseekers on a variety of topics including credit reports, criminal records, data privacy, discrimination, E-Verify, jobs reports, legal updates, negligent hiring, workplace violence, and use of search engines and social network sites for background checks. For more information about ESR News or to send comments or questions, please email ESR News Editor Thomas Ahearn at tahearn@esrcheck.com. To subscribe to the ESR News Blog Feed, visit http://www.esrcheck.com/wordpress/feed/. To subscribe to the complimentary ESRcheck Report monthly newsletter, please visit http://www.esrcheck.com/Newsletter/.

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