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[liberationtech] Professor finds profiling in ads for personal data website | Reuters

Yosem Companys companys at
Sun Nov 25 06:22:13 PST 2012

Dr. Latisha Smith, an expert in decompression sicknesses afflicting deep
sea divers, has cleared criminal background checks throughout her medical
career. Yet someone searching the Web for the Washington State physician
might well come across an Internet ad suggesting she may have an arrest

"Latisha Smith, arrested?" reads one such advertisement.

Another says: "Latisha Smith Truth... Check Latisha Smith's Arrests.", which labels itself the "Internet's leading authority
on background checks," placed both ads. A statistical analysis of the
company's advertising has found it has disproportionately used ad copy
including the word "arrested" for black-identifying names, even when a
person has no arrest record.

Latanya Sweeney is a Harvard University professor of government with a
doctorate in computer science. After learning that her own name had popped
up in an "arrested?" ad when a colleague was searching for one of her
academic publications, she ran more than 120,000 searches for names
primarily given to either black or white children, testing ads delivered
for 2,400 real names 50 times each. (The author of this story is a Harvard
University fellow collaborating with Professor Sweeney on a book about the
business of personal data.)

Ebony Jefferson, for example, often turns up an ad
reading: "Ebony Jefferson, arrested?" but an ad triggered by a search for
Emily Jefferson would read: "We found Emily Jefferson." Searches for
randomly chosen black-identifying names such as Deshawn Williams, Latisha
Smith or Latanya Smith often produced the "arrested?" headline or ad text
with the word "arrest," whereas other less ethnic-sounding first names
matched with the same surnames typically did not.

"As an African-American, I'm used to profiling like that," said Dr. Smith.
"I think it's horrendous that they get away with it." declined to comment. The company's founder and
managing partner, Kristian Kibak, did not respond to repeated emails and
phone calls over a period of several months, and other employees referred
calls to management. Company officials also declined to comment when
visited twice at their call center in Las Vegas. Former employees said they
had signed nondisclosure agreements that barred them from speaking openly
about Instant Checkmate. is one of many data brokers that use and sell data for
a variety of purposes. The field is attracting growing attention, both from
government and consumers concerned about possible abuse. Rapid advances in
technology have opened up all sorts of opportunities for commercialization
of data.

Anyone can set up shop and sell arrest records as long as they stay clear
of U.S. legal limitations such as using the information to determine
creditworthiness, insurance or job suitability.

Companies that compete with include and An examination of Internet advertising starting last March as
well as Sweeney's study did not find any rival companies advertising
background searches on individual names along racial lines.


In its own marketing, sums up its mission like this:
"Parents will no longer need to wonder about whether their neighbors,
friends, home day care providers, a former spouse's new love interest or
preschool providers can be trusted to care for their children responsibly."

According to preliminary findings of Professor Sweeney's research, searches
of names assigned primarily to black babies, such as Tyrone, Darnell, Ebony
and Latisha, generated "arrest" in the ad copy between
75 percent and 96 percent of the time. Names assigned at birth primarily to
whites, such as Geoffrey, Brett, Kristen and Anne, led to more neutral
copy, with the word "arrest" appearing between zero and 9 percent of the

A few names fell outside of these patterns: Brad, a name predominantly
given to white babies, produced an ad with the word "arrest" 62 percent to
65 percent of the time. Sweeney found that ads appear regardless of whether
the name has an arrest record attached to it.

Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for 28
percent of the arrests listed on the FBI's most recent annual crime

Internet advertising based on millions of name pairs has only existed in
recent years, so targeting ads along racial lines raises new legal
questions. Experts say the Federal Trade Commission, which this year
assessed an $800,000 penalty against personal data site for
different reasons (related to the use of data for job-vetting purposes),
would be the institution best placed to review Instant Checkmate's

The FTC enforces regulations against unfair or deceptive business
practices. A deceptive claim that would be more likely to get people to
purchase a product than they would otherwise would be a typical reason the
FTC might act against a company, said one FTC official who did not want to
be identified. For example, authorities could take action against a firm
that makes misleading claims suggesting a product such as records exist
when they do not.

"It's disturbing," Julie Brill, an FTC commissioner, said of Instant
Checkmate's advertising. "I don't know if it's illegal ... It's something
that we'd need to study to see if any enforcement action is needed."

Instant Checkmate's Kibak, who is in his late 20s, works out of a San Diego
office near the Pacific Ocean. The son of a California biology professor,
he did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking comment about
his business.

"We would consider the answers to most of your questions trade secrets and
therefore would not be comfortable disclosing that information," Joey
Rocco, Kibak's partner according to the firm's Nevada state registration,
said in an email.

Instant Checkmate LLC maintains its official corporate headquarters at an
address in an industrial zone across the highway from the Las Vegas strip.
At the back of a long parking lot, the company shares a warehouse building
with an auto repair shop. At one end, a large roll-up garage-style door
opens to the company's call center. Workers face a gray cinder-block wall,
their backs to the entrance. Staff declined to answer questions.


Professor Sweeney's analysis found that some ads hint
at arrest records when the firm's database has no record of any arrest for
that name, as is the case with her own name. In other cases, such as that
of Latisha Smith, the company does have arrest records for some people by
that name, although not for the doctor of hypobaric medicine in Washington

Laura Beatty, an Internet Marketing Inc expert in helping companies achieve
prominent placement in Web searches, said appeared to
choose its ads based on combinations of thousands of different first and
last names and then segment them based on the first names.

"There does look like there is some definite profiling going on here," she
said. "In the searches that I looked at, it seemed like the more
Midwestern- and WASP-sounding the name was, the less likely it was to have
either any advertisement at all or to have something that was more geared
around the arrest or criminal background."

Internet firms selling criminal records and personal data to the public
have proliferated in recent years, as low-cost computing enables even
modest operations to maintain large databases on millions of Americans.
Such sites sell access to users for a one-time fee - $29.95 in the case of - or via monthly subscription plans.

Instant Checkmate, first registered in Nevada in 2010, said in a recent
press release posted online that the firm had attracted more than 570,000
customers since its start and counted more than 200,000 subscribers.

According to, an Amazon.Com Inc site analyzing website traffic, has ranged roughly between the 500th and 600th most
visited U.S. site in recent weeks, making it an increasingly major player
in this area.

The company is able to target its ads on an individual name basis through a
program called Google AdWords. and others companies
like it use Google AdWords to bid to place small text advertisements
alongside search results on major websites triggered by the names in their
data base. Such ads typically cost a company far less than a dollar,
sometimes just a few pennies, each time they're clicked.

Google says it does not control what names appear in AdWords. "Advertisers
select all of their keywords, and ads are triggered when someone searches
for that name. We don't have any role in the advertiser's selection of
unique proper names," said a Google spokesman.

Some in Congress have raised concerns about developments in the use of
personal data. In October, Senator John Rockefeller IV, a Democrat from
West Virginia and chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and
Transportation, opened a probe into leading data brokers. "Collecting,
storing and selling information about Americans raises all types of
questions that require careful scrutiny," he said.
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