Groups Warn of Privacy Risks in Employment Screening

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and PrivacyActivism submitted comments to the US Attorney General expressing concern about commercial data vendors and private employers' use of federal criminal records files for employment purposes. The comments were submitted at the request of the US Attorney General who is seeking recommendations for a report being prepared for Congress. The report to Congress is required by a 2004 law for Intelligence Reform.

"Transparency and accuracy are vital to the background check process. People's livelihoods are at stake, and when background checks contain errors, the damage can be devastating to individuals seeking work," says Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Director, Beth Givens. Comments urge the government to strike a balance between the need for national security and workers' rights for assurance that only accurate and complete criminal history data are reported to a prospective employer.

Data accuracy, completeness and security are all issues surrounding the use of commercial data files. Individuals' problems are highlighted in numerous real-life cases reported to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse by those who have been shut out of the job market because of faulty criminal history reports. Many of the problems stem from background check reports prepared by data brokers obligated to comply with the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Any number of situations can result in erroneous information, adversely affecting a job applicant or long-time employee. These things can and do happen :

  • State criminal records report an arrest but not the case disposition.
  • Court records are inaccurate.
  • The subject is the victim of identity theft.
  • The person's name appears as an alias in court records even when a mistake has been corrected.
  • A criminal conviction is reported even though a period of probation or deferred adjudication was served with the understanding that a conviction would not result.
  • Convictions that are expunged or records believed sealed appear on background check reports.

Add to this the fact that workers have limited ability to even know what information is reported. Even when inaccurate information is corrected, workers have no right to appeal to an employer. Standards for access to federal criminal records should close the gap on such inadequacies and shortcomings.

In addition to privacy, accuracy, and procedural questions, federal policy raises concerns about employment discrimination and difficulty of people with a criminal record reentering the job force. Such concerns were outlined in comments submitted by the National Employment Law Project along with other national labor and civil rights organizations.

"The Attorney General has an especially timely opportunity and responsibility," says Maurice Emsellem, of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), one of the national organizations that submitted recommendations. "Given how fast these new laws are evolving, if we don't stop now and get it right, federal policy will inflict untold harm on the nation's workers while perpetuating a false sense of safety and security," according to Mr. Emsellem.