Friday, March 19, 2010

On Human-Flesh Search Engines (and Searching for Humans)

The Goodson Blogson can't stop thinking about an absorbing New York Times Magazine article from earlier this month, China’s Cyberposse. The article describes popular online communities which mobilize to expose and publicly shame individuals who have committed various transgressions (such as adultery, animal cruelty, or government corruption). In some cases, the targets of a human-flesh search have lost their jobs; others now live in hiding, fearful of vigilante justice for their wrongdoings.

Comparable online forums exist in the United States, although they are far less mainstream than their Chinese counterparts. Similar tactics can also be found on a milder scale in the U.S. on social networking websites (such as a Twitter feed in Alaska which posts the license plates of bad drivers or Don’t Date Him Girl, an online community which posts personal information about alleged cheaters or otherwise-lousy boyfriends).

Those who have never attempted to track someone down online might be shocked at how easy it can be with just a few key pieces of information. While there are certainly benefits to this simplicity – consider how often Facebook reunites childhood friends – there are an equal number of concerns. This week, the Times reminded us of the downside by highlighting a research paper from 2009 in which the authors used publicly-accessible online data about birthdates and places to accurately predict Social Security numbers for nearly 10% of the population born between 1989 and 2003—a potential windfall for identity thieves. (Concerned about identity theft? Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s site for helpful info about prevention.)

Still, there are numerous times when legal researchers have a legitimate need to locate people, and it pays to be aware of the resources available (both free and premium) and their uses and limitations. Monday’s Research Madness workshop will cover "Finding & Backgrounding People": whether you expect factual investigation to be a part of your legal employment, or you’re just curious to see what others can discover about you, download the Research Madness calendar (PDF) and plan to attend.

Can’t make it to the workshop on Monday morning? The slides and handouts from this year’s workshops are being posted at; check back by Monday afternoon for the people-finding materials. And to paraphrase the beverage commercials, please use responsibly.