Study finds criminal records website uses racial profiling

(Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

(Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

A recent study by two Harvard researchers shows evidence that a criminal records website uses racial profiling when advertising its services.

Latanya Sweeney, Director of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard, and Adam Tanner, a Harvard Department of Government fellow, made the discovery while doing research for a book on online criminal records, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Sweeney and Tanner identified InstantCheckmate.com as a site that posted more negative ads for common African-American names than it did for typically white-sounding names.

Sweeney said online searches for African-American names would result in negative ads implying a criminal past, while searches for white names resulted in more neutral advertising.

When Sweeney searched her own name, she found an ad saying, “Latanya Sweeney: Arrested?” And when she searched Tanya Smith, she got an ad saying, “Located: Tanya Smith” instead.

According to an article Tanner wrote for Reuters, Sweeney conducted more than 120,000 searches for both typically black and white names. She found that names like Tyrone, Darnell and Latisha generated ads with the word “arrest” between 75 to 96 perecent of the time, while names like Geoffrey, Brett and Anne only used “arrest” zero to 9 percent of the time.

Another example he gives is a search for the name Ebony Jefferson. An InstantCheckmate.com ad pops up asking: “Ebony Jefferson, arrested?” But when the first name is changed to Emily, the resulting ad read: “We found Emily Jefferson.”

The Harvard Crimson reported that the researchers’ attempts to get a response from the company behind the website failed. Tanner even traveled to Las Vegas to speak with the site’s founder.

“I told them what I knew about the racial profiling, and they said, ‘We can’t talk to you. You have to come back,'” Tanner said.

When he was finally able to speak with the founder, Tanner said he was told, “I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome; you’re not welcome here.”

InstantCheckmate is not the only website that provides data on individuals. It protects itself legally with a disclaimer that information on its site cannot be used to “make decisions about consumer credit, employment, insurance, tenant screening, or any other purpose that would require FCRA compliance.”

To read more about the study’s findings, click here.

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