🚗 🚙 Turn your trusty old car into trustworthy journalism Learn more

Big brother or security tool?

Sarah Gardner May 8, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Another domino fell in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal today. A former top aide to Ohio Republican congressman Bob Ney confessed to conspiracy and lobbying violations. After he left Ney’s office, Neil Volz went to work for Abramoff. Chances are there wasn’t much of a background check done. Washington’s a pretty small town. And everybody sort of knows everybody. But most big companies do run checks on people they’re thinking about hiring. They want to screen out the bad apples before they’re on the payroll. Now, some employers are going even further. Regularly checking up on employees after they’ve started working. More from Sarah Gardner.

SARAH GARDNER: Tal Moise knows that people sometimes lie, or at least omit certain inconvenient facts about themselves. The CEO of Verified Person, a background-check company, says he found that out quick when he tried online dating.

TAL MOISE: The first person I met ended up being married and the third ended up having a child . . . all things I would have preferred to have known prior to meeting them.

Moise and co-founder John Sculley, the former Apple Computer CEO, are carving out a new niche in the ever-expanding background-check industry. They’re selling a product that automatically alerts employers every couple weeks of any criminal offenses by current employees.

MOISE: If an individual is hired, they may be clean at the point at which they were hired. But that doesn’t mean that things don’t change in their lives. Today, checks are really only done at the point at which someone is hired.

Moise’s firm intends to change that. He says hundreds of companies are now using Verified Person’s continuous background check software. They want to prevent not only employee theft and fraud but guard against the growing number of lawsuits for negligent hiring. Just last week, in fact, Wal-Mart fought off such a suit in South Carolina after one of its employees, a convicted sexual offender, was accused of molesting a young customer in 2001.

SONYA VAN NORDEN: Unfortunately, things do happen.

Sonya Van Norden, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Stamford, Conn., says local chapters like hers are required to screen employees every two years anyway. So getting a bimonthly report just makes it easier.

VAN NORDEN: You want to be aware immediately, especially with somebody who’s working so closely with children.

These continuous checks cost from $1 to $2 per month, per employee and, Moise says, to date they’ve turned up some serious stuff.

MOISE: We’ve found pharmacists who’ve been convicted of drug manufacturing and distribution while still running a pharmacy department. We’ve found a head of audit who was convicted of felony theft. We found a patient transporter in a hospital who was convicted of sexual assault.

All this monitoring, however, is sending a chill up the spines of workplace and privacy advocates.

CHRIS HOOFNAGLE: These continual background checks are just the newest arrow in the quiver of employers.

Chris Hoofnagle is senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Centera€¦

HOOFNAGLE: Employers started with phone monitoring years ago. Then they started with e-mail monitoring, then IM monitoring. They used drug testing, personality testing, background checks and now continous background checks. There really needs to be a rebalancing of rights so the employee has a fair shake against all of these technologies.

Verified Person’s Tal Moise says his clients aren’t interested in being “Big Brother,” but to the average employee, continuous screening might begin to feel a little like surveillance. They may not be fired after the boss spots that DWI over the weekend, but they might well worry it could influence the boss’ opinion of them. And it’s not just criminal records that employers can get hold of, argues Chris Hoofnagle.

HOOFNAGLE: So if you have a very big mortgage, or a lot of credit card debt, well, you might be an embezzlement risk. If you’ve sued a bunch of people, maybe they don’t want to hire you because they’re afraid that you might sue the employer.

Not all background checks are equal, of course. And Hoffnagle says people have lost out on jobs because of faulty data. Tal Moise admits the system isn’t perfect and is among those calling for national standards for the industry. In the meantime, however, he hopes people will begin to view background checks as a security tool, not an invasion of privacy.

MOISE: It dumbfounds me at times that there is an assumption of privacy when you commit a crime. Criminal record information is public record data. If you don’t want people to know certain things that you did, don’t do them.

I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.