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Private Job Eligibility Databases Pose Serious Risks

Marketing isn’t the only use for data brokers’ troves of information. Some data brokers (including Intelius, one of the subjects of the FTC study) provide background check services, allowing employers to screen applicants for criminal histories before making a job offer.

The process of matching a potential employee to a specific record held by a background check company can be less than precise: two people with similar names might have their records mixed up, one person’s criminal history might be attributed to another person, and someone with an actual criminal history might be miscategorized as having a “clean sheet.” Potential employees may never learn that their job offer was revoked due to a mistaken identity, and they have no effective recourse to challenge these assessments. (The protections of the Fair Credit Reporting Act may technically apply, but since job applicants are unlikely to learn of the database error, she likely cannot do anything about it.)

What would it mean to take accuracy seriously for a database that controls access to jobs? Today, the best example comes from the federal E-Verify program. E-Verify, first authorized in 1996, electronically checks job applicants’ eligibility to work in the United States. The database has been plagued with errors, which have prompted significant investments to improve the system and third-party audits. Though serious problems remain, at least we have evidence some are taking E-Verify’s accuracy problems seriously.

When a database error costs someone a job, the harm is severe, regardless of whether the database is operated by the government or the private sector. We should care equally about accuracy in both cases.

Note: Due to an editing error in the initial version of this post, the post and its headline have been edited. The changes clarify the potential availability of FCRA protections for job seekers, and remove the incorrect suggestion that background checks were a point of emphasis in the recent FTC report. We regret the error.

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