By Michael Datcher
About three years ago, Peter Lorca (not his real name) figured his old misdemeanor criminal conviction was hurting his job prospects. He then went to a Texas courthouse and paid fees to have his record expunged.
But the old conviction remained tied to Lorca because PeopleFinders.com and other online data brokers published the expunged information.
Lorca now is the lead plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit against PeopleFinders and other websites owned by Confi-Chek Inc., a data-broker holding company in Sacramento, Calif.
‘A Shadowy Element’
“There is a shadowy element to many of these websites who are often publishing incorrect, junky data,” David George, one of Lorca’s attorneys, told Digital Privacy News.
“Contacting the websites about out-of-date or erroneous personal information can be like sending a request into a black hole.
“Because there are so many of these companies, there is really no way for consumers to know whether the bad information has been permanently removed,” he said.
The lawsuit, filed in July 2018, is in the discovery phase in a federal district court in Texas, George said. It alleges that Confi-Chek engaged in the “willful publication and/or sale of consumers expunged” criminal records, which violates the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Lorca and other privacy-conscious consumers suffer real-world consequences when their data is sold by brokers and end up on websites across the internet.
They then undertake the arduous — if not insurmountable — task of deleting those personal details from multiple data-broker sites.
But that information could end back up on those sites minutes, if not hours, later.
How do these companies acquire so much personal information?
“These websites use a combination of public records, like publicly available court documents, and private records, like marketing information collected when you apply for a credit card,” Steven Gebelin, an internet law attorney in Beverly Hills, told Digital Privacy News.
“Once the information is gathered, it is common for companies to resell it to other business entities.”
Huge Growth Industry
Personal-data commerce is a huge growth industry, according to the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) in San Diego.
The clearinghouse, established in 1992, lists 232 data brokers on its site and provides their contact information and opt-out links.
“We’re about to add 150 more,” policy counsel Emory Roane said. “This is a billion-dollar industry, so it attracts big companies and fly-by-night operations.
“Data brokers rarely share pricing and profit details, but we know its lucrative because personal data can be monetized.”
These brokers also make it difficult for consumers to find the opt-out links on their websites.
Too Much Money Involved
Bennet Kelley, from the Santa Monica-based Internet Law Center, was blunt about the realities of information monetization.
“Listen, these sites are not going to make it easy to opt out if there’s no national legal force to compel the action, especially when there is money to be made,” he told Digital Privacy News.
“Furthermore, opt-out options are often only for a period of time, usually a year, so your information easily can soon be back online.”
Some data brokers market their efforts as public service, but Christine Bannan, consumer protection counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, ripped that approach as “pretty disingenuous.”
“They’re selling personal information, when people really want to control their personal information.”
No single effective approach to removing and keeping your personal information off the internet is immediately possible, experts tell Digital Privacy News, and the effort will remain daunting until the U.S. has a national privacy law.
“The idea that privacy is dead is wrong,” PRC’s Roane said. “We are still in the battle.
“I advise people to go to the opt-out links we post on Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, consider using a professional service — and, most importantly, get in the habit of reading websites’ privacy policies.”
Michael Datcher is an author and writer in California.
- www. govinfo.gov/app/details/USCOURTS-caed-2_18-cv-01968/context
- www. epic.org
- www. privacyrights.org