Should You Background Check Your Neighbors?

September 19th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Privacy and accuracy issues arise from a background check site.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

In the old days, the protocol was meet people first, discover things about them after.

Then Google came along and flipped the format, allowing so much information to be amassed before meeting someone that the encounter itself was sometimes obsolete.

Now there’s CriminalSearches.com, a new online service that invites users to type in the name of any adult, anywhere in the U.S., and search to see if the person has a criminal record. For free.

“Do you really know who people are?” CriminalSearches asks, urging users to run criminal background checks on nannies, neighbors, teachers, acquaintances, locksmiths and even “hedge fund managers.”

Besides searching by name, users can also type their addresses into the “Sex Offender Finder” and the “Neighborhood Watch” feature, both of which produce maps that reveal crimes and identities of people in the neighborhood--the burglar down the block, the drug dealer around the corner, and the sex offender on the route to school.

But the site “contains some mistakes,” reports The New York Times. “Some records are incomplete, and there is often no way to distinguish between people with the same names if you don’t know their birthdays (and even that date is often missing).”

When a Times reporter ran the name of a colleague through CriminalSearches, the system reported a “criminal offense.” It turned out to be a speeding ticket. “I went to traffic school so this wouldn’t appear on my record,” the stunned colleague explained. “I’m in shock.”

Tell us what you think: How do you balance the right to know with the responsibility to be accurate when it comes to criminal background checks? Do you have a responsibility for how you use personal information you find online? Should everyone be allowed to access anyone’s personal legal history, whether or not it’s criminal?