Professor finds profiling in ads for personal data website

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By Adam Tanner | November 25, 2012 5:21 PM EST

Dr. Latisha Smith, an expert in decompression sicknesses afflicting deep sea divers, has cleared criminal background checks throughout her medical career. Yet someone searching the Web for the Washington State physician might well come across an Internet ad suggesting she may have an arrest record.

"Latisha Smith, arrested?" reads one such advertisement.

Another says: "Latisha Smith Truth... Check Latisha Smith's Arrests."

Instantcheckmate.com, which labels itself the "Internet's leading authority on background checks," placed both ads. A statistical analysis of the company's advertising has found it has disproportionately used ad copy including the word "arrested" for black-identifying names, even when a person has no arrest record.

Latanya Sweeney is a Harvard University professor of government with a doctorate in computer science. After learning that her own name had popped up in an "arrested?" ad when a colleague was searching for one of her academic publications, she 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. (The author of this story is a Harvard University fellow collaborating with Professor Sweeney on a book about the business of personal data.)

Ebony Jefferson, for example, often turns up an instantcheckmate.com ad reading: "Ebony Jefferson, arrested?" but an ad triggered by a search for Emily Jefferson would read: "We found Emily Jefferson." Searches for randomly chosen black-identifying names such as Deshawn Williams, Latisha Smith or Latanya Smith often produced the "arrested?" headline or ad text with the word "arrest," whereas other less ethnic-sounding first names matched with the same surnames typically did not.

"As an African-American, I'm used to profiling like that," said Dr. Smith. "I think it's horrendous that they get away with it."

Instantcheckmate.com declined to comment. The company's founder and managing partner, Kristian Kibak, did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls over a period of several months, and other employees referred calls to management. Company officials also declined to comment when visited twice at their call center in Las Vegas. Former employees said they had signed nondisclosure agreements that barred them from speaking openly about Instant Checkmate.

Instantcheckmate.com is one of many data brokers that use and sell data for a variety of purposes. The field is attracting growing attention, both from government and consumers concerned about possible abuse. Rapid advances in technology have opened up all sorts of opportunities for commercialization of data.

Anyone can set up shop and sell arrest records as long as they stay clear of U.S. legal limitations such as using the information to determine creditworthiness, insurance or job suitability.

Companies that compete with instantcheckmate.com include intelius.com and mylife.com. An examination of Internet advertising starting last March as well as Sweeney's study did not find any rival companies advertising background searches on individual names along racial lines.

WHO CAN BE TRUSTED?

In its own marketing, Instantcheckmate.com sums up its mission like this: "Parents will no longer need to wonder about whether their neighbors, friends, home day care providers, a former spouse's new love interest or preschool providers can be trusted to care for their children responsibly."

According to preliminary findings of Professor Sweeney's research, searches of names assigned primarily to black babies, such as Tyrone, Darnell, Ebony and Latisha, generated "arrest" in the instantcheckmate.com ad copy between 75 percent and 96 percent of the time. Names assigned at birth primarily to whites, such as Geoffrey, Brett, Kristen and Anne, led to more neutral copy, with the word "arrest" appearing between zero and 9 percent of the time.

A few names fell outside of these patterns: Brad, a name predominantly given to white babies, produced an ad with the word "arrest" 62 percent to 65 percent of the time. Sweeney found that ads appear regardless of whether the name has an arrest record attached to it.

Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 28 percent of the arrests listed on the FBI's most recent annual crime statistics.

Internet advertising based on millions of name pairs has only existed in recent years, so targeting ads along racial lines raises new legal questions. Experts say the Federal Trade Commission, which this year assessed an $800,000 penalty against personal data site Spokeo.com for different reasons (related to the use of data for job-vetting purposes), would be the institution best placed to review Instant Checkmate's practices.

The FTC enforces regulations against unfair or deceptive business practices. A deceptive claim that would be more likely to get people to purchase a product than they would otherwise would be a typical reason the FTC might act against a company, said one FTC official who did not want to be identified. For example, authorities could take action against a firm that makes misleading claims suggesting a product such as records exist when they do not.

"It's disturbing," Julie Brill, an FTC commissioner, said of Instant Checkmate's advertising. "I don't know if it's illegal ... It's something that we'd need to study to see if any enforcement action is needed."

Instant Checkmate's Kibak, who is in his late 20s, works out of a San Diego office near the Pacific Ocean. The son of a California biology professor, he did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment about his business.

"We would consider the answers to most of your questions trade secrets and therefore would not be comfortable disclosing that information," Joey Rocco, Kibak's partner according to the firm's Nevada state registration, said in an email.

Instant Checkmate LLC maintains its official corporate headquarters at an address in an industrial zone across the highway from the Las Vegas strip. At the back of a long parking lot, the company shares a warehouse building with an auto repair shop. At one end, a large roll-up garage-style door opens to the company's call center. Workers face a gray cinder-block wall, their backs to the entrance. Staff declined to answer questions.

DATA FIRMS PROLIFERATE

Professor Sweeney's analysis found that some instantcheckmate.com ads hint at arrest records when the firm's database has no record of any arrest for that name, as is the case with her own name. In other cases, such as that of Latisha Smith, the company does have arrest records for some people by that name, although not for the doctor of hypobaric medicine in Washington State.

Laura Beatty, an Internet Marketing Inc expert in helping companies achieve prominent placement in Web searches, said instantcheckmate.com appeared to choose its ads based on combinations of thousands of different first and last names and then segment them based on the first names.

"There does look like there is some definite profiling going on here," she said. "In the searches that I looked at, it seemed like the more Midwestern- and WASP-sounding the name was, the less likely it was to have either any advertisement at all or to have something that was more geared around the arrest or criminal background."

Internet firms selling criminal records and personal data to the public have proliferated in recent years, as low-cost computing enables even modest operations to maintain large databases on millions of Americans. Such sites sell access to users for a one-time fee - $29.95 in the case of instantcheckmate.com - or via monthly subscription plans.

Instant Checkmate, first registered in Nevada in 2010, said in a recent press release posted online that the firm had attracted more than 570,000 customers since its start and counted more than 200,000 subscribers.

According to alexa.com, an Amazon.Com Inc site analyzing website traffic, instantcheckmate.com has ranged roughly between the 500th and 600th most visited U.S. site in recent weeks, making it an increasingly major player in this area.

The company is able to target its ads on an individual name basis through a program called Google AdWords. Instantcheckmate.com and others companies like it use Google AdWords to bid to place small text advertisements alongside search results on major websites triggered by the names in their data base. Such ads typically cost a company far less than a dollar, sometimes just a few pennies, each time they're clicked.

Google says it does not control what names appear in AdWords. "Advertisers select all of their keywords, and ads are triggered when someone searches for that name. We don't have any role in the advertiser's selection of unique proper names," said a Google spokesman.

Some in Congress have raised concerns about developments in the use of personal data. In October, Senator John Rockefeller IV, a Democrat from West Virginia and chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, opened a probe into leading data brokers. "Collecting, storing and selling information about Americans raises all types of questions that require careful scrutiny," he said.

(Adam Tanner is a Reuters correspondent currently on a 2012-13 fellowship at Harvard University’s Department of Government.)

(Editing by Claudia Parsons and Prudence Crowther)

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