Harvard Professor Finds Racial Profiling In Ads For Personal Data Site
Dr. Latisha Smith, who is an expert in decompression sicknesses afflicting deep sea divers, has cleared criminal background checks throughout her entire medical career. But anyone who searches her name may come across an ad suggesting that the Washington state physician has an arrest record.
Instantcheckmate.com, which calls itself the “Internet’s leading authority on background checks,” placed two ads that read, “Latisha Smith, arrested?” and “Latisha Smith Truth … Check Latisha Smith’s Arrests.”
A statistical analysis of the website, run by Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, found that the company’s advertising disproportionately used copy including the word “arrested” for black-identifying names, even when the person had no arrest record.
Sweeney, who teaches government and has a doctorate in computer science, found that her own name had popped up in one of Instantcheckmate’s “arrested” ads when a colleague searched for one of her academic publications.
Sweeney than ran more than 120,000 searches for names given primarily to black or white children, and tested ads delivered for 2,400 real names 50 times each.
The name Ebony Jefferson — a black-identifying name — turned up an “Ebony Jefferson, arrested?” ad. But the white-identifying name Emily Jefferson turned up an ad that said, “We found Emily Jefferson.”
Searches for black-identifying names such as Latanya Smith, Latisha Smith, or Deshawn Williams often turned up the “arrested” ads. Less ethnic-sounding first names matched with the same last names typically did not return “arrested” ads.
Smith said, “As an African-American, I’m used to profiling like that. I think it’s horrendous that they get away with it.”
Instantcheckmate declined to comment.
Preliminary findings in Sweeney’s research found that names primarily assigned to black children generated “arrest” copy between 75 and 96 percent of the time. Names primarily assigned to white turned up more neutral copy, and the word “arrest” appeared between zero and 9 percent of the time.
Certain names, like Brad, fell outside of the pattern. That name turned up “arrest” copy 62 to 65 percent of the time. Sweeney found that ads appear regardless of whether the name has an arrest record attached to it.
FTC commissioner Julie Brill said, “It’s disturbing. I don’t know if it’s illegal … It’s something that we need to study to see if any enforcement action is needed.”
Are you surprised by Professor Sweeney’s findings? Have you experienced this yourself?
Update: Instant Checkmate reach out to our team following the publication of this story. Here is the company’s official response:
“As a point of fact, Instant Checkmate would like to state unequivocally that it has never engaged in racial profiling in Google AdWords.
We have absolutely no technology in place to even connect a name with a race and have never made any attempt to do so.
The very idea is contrary to our company’s most deeply held principles and values.”