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    Recent Stories About the Collection and Use of Personal Data on Individuals

    I’ve written before about how social-networking data — from sites such as MySpace and Facebook — have been used to gather evidence in trials against jurors and defendants, in divorce cases, against employees (which can lead to lawsuits from affected individuals), applicants to colleges and graduate schools, politicians and high school students. We’ve seen it affect applicants to jobs in the United States and abroad.

    There’s also the issue of other kinds of data being used against a person — sometimes when that data is wrong. Data brokers’ files have been proved to be filled with errors. For example, when a news reporter looked up his file on data broker Intellius.com, he found the record said he was charged with child molestation (he wasn’t) and that he had a close male relative who was convicted of manslaughter (the reporter had never heard of the man). There are numerous errors in the records of data broker ChoicePoint, used by the FBI and IRS. A man bought his ChoicePoint record and found that the file showed he had died in 1976. Another man’s report included numerous crimes that he never committed.

    Here are a couple of stories published over the holidays about collection of data on individuals and how such personal information can be used against them.

    Associated Press: When Your Criminal Past Isn’t Yours

    The business of background checks is booming. Employers spend at least $2 billion a year to look into the pasts of their prospective employees. They want to make sure they’re not hiring a thief, or worse.

    But it is a system weakened by the conversion to digital files and compromised by the welter of private companies that profit by amassing public records and selling them to employers. These flaws have devastating consequences.

    It is a system in which the most sensitive information from people’s pasts is bought and sold as a commodity. A system in which computers scrape the public files of court systems around the country to retrieve personal data. But a system in which what they retrieve isn’t checked for errors that would be obvious to human eyes. A system that can damage reputations and, in a time of precious few job opportunities, rob honest workers of a chance at a new start. And a system that can leave the Kathleen Caseys of the world — the innocent ones — living in a car.

    Those are the results of an investigation by The Associated Press that included a review of thousands of pages of court filings and interviews with dozens of court officials, data providers, lawyers, victims and regulators. [...]

    The mix-ups can start with a mistake entered into the logs of a law enforcement agency or a court file. The biggest culprits, though, are companies that compile databases using public information.

    In some instances, their automated formulas misinterpret the information provided them. Other times, as Casey discovered, records wind up assigned to the wrong people with a common name. [...]

    Data providers defend their accuracy. LexisNexis does more than 12 million background checks a year. It is one of the world’s biggest data providers, with more than 22 billion public records on its own computers.

    It says fewer than 1 percent of its background checks are disputed. That still amounts to 120,000 people — more than the population of Topeka, Kan.

    But there are problems with those assertions. People rarely know when they are victims of data errors. Employers are required by law to tell job applicants when they’ve been rejected because of negative information in a background check. But many do not.

    Even the vaunted FBI criminal records database has problems. The FBI database has information on sentencings and other case results for only half its arrest records. Many people in the database have been cleared of charges. The Justice Department says the records are incomplete because states are inconsistent in reporting the conclusions of their cases. The FBI restricts access to its records, locking out the commercial database providers that regularly buy information from state and county government agencies.

    Kansas City Star: Colleges are watching applicants’ online trails

    If a kid has stuff on Facebook or Twitter that he or she wouldn’t want Nana to see, then take it down — or better yet, don’t put it up. Because college admission officials may be reading those postings about sexual shenanigans, hooliganism or whatever might shock the old lady.

    “What you and your friends might think is cool, a college admissions officer or a job may see differently,” warned Kathy Hardee, a local mother of teen girls. “Once it is out there it can’t be erased.”

    Colleges, particularly the private and hard to get into, are more and more tracing applicants’ digital trails, when determining who might not be a good fit. [...]

    This year Kaplan Test Prep’s survey of the country’s top 500 colleges and universities showed that at least 41 percent of law school admission officers have Googled an applicant to find out more about them than what was on their application or in their essay.

    And as if getting in to a top law school these days isn’t tough enough, some 37 percent have gone a step further to an applicant’s Facebook or other social networking sites to get a peek into the potential student’s life. A third have reported making the kinds of online discoveries scandalous enough to knock a student out of consideration.

    About 27 percent of business schools say they check, while one out of five of the top colleges surveyed said they have at least run a quick Google search on would-be freshmen.

    USA Today: Hide your tracks when looking for another job

    But these days it’s a much different story. Employers may be able to glean that you’re looking to jump ship by your frenzied activity updating your LinkedIn profile or through a Twitter or Facebook posting that mentions you hate your job and are trying to leave as quickly as possible.

    Savvy employers may even use Foursquare to track your movements and see that you’ve been visiting competitors or spending a lot of time in FedEx Kinko’s, where they might surmise you’re making copies of your resume.

    The problem is that with the job market so full of talented people seeking jobs, your boss may tolerate your actions less than in years past. He or she may believe that your desire to leave should be hurried along — and just fire you on the spot. [...]

    Employers are doing Google searches on their employees and their activities because they are aware of creeping employee disengagement and dissatisfaction. They know such unhappiness can lead to turnover as the job market improves.

    A Gallup poll found that more than 1 in 4 workers are unhappy with the tangible rewards from their work such as pay and benefits and also cite a higher level of on-the-job stress.

    Human resources departments and bosses often keep an eye on employees’ social media chatter and may do keyword searches to turn up resumes from employees posted to job boards of other company job sites. Using job titles, company names and even industry keywords, employers may be able to find you easily through their searches, Joyce and Morgan say.

    Read the full story for tips on how to job hunt without your employer finding out.

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