Where Were You Living Forty Years Ago? My Experience With Background Checks

By a UIUC Faculty Member

It is with some dismay that I see that the Board of Trustees has adopted a policy of background checks for all new faculty at the University of Illinois. In order to take advantage of a fellowship opportunity at another academic institution, I recently had to submit to four background checks. In my experience, the entire process seemed a poor use of time and resources.

For instance, the educational background check that was initiated by HR at University X could not be completed because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects the privacy of student educational records. After having dutifully filled out the requisite information on the HR website, I received a letter in the mail some weeks later that informed me that my alma mater would not release any information to the third-party vendor. I remain puzzled as to why University X continues to pay for such abortive background checks, as most academic institutions would presumably claim similar protections for student records under FERPA.

Meanwhile, the state police criminal background check ($10) and child abuse history check ($10) were unduly onerous for little return. I had to compile detailed information for these checks: they demanded to know all the addresses where I had lived since 1975, and the names of all individuals with whom I had lived since 1975, including family. Given that the agencies only have jurisdiction in a state in which I had never previously resided (and in a country in which I had spent limited time), it seemed unlikely that they would find useful most of the information that I had carefully supplied. The results of these checks were available instantaneously, suggesting that my foreign and out-of-state details were not examined at all.

Next, I had to be fingerprinted at a local police station in order to complete the FBI criminal history report ($25.75). Because the records officer provides these services to the public for only a few hours each week, one might find oneself in the company of former convicted sex offenders who are also awaiting fingerprinting, as well as prospective school teachers and bus drivers. Judging from the somewhat disorganized procedure, I am quite certain that our local police departments are not yet equipped to deal with a major increase in demand for fingerprinting services. Locally, each fingerprint card can cost as much as $40, and two cards are to be submitted to the FBI lest one prove illegible; the total of $80 must be paid in cash. (CFA editor’s note: the proposed background check policy at UIUC does not mention the possibility of fingerprint collection. CFA assumes, therefore, that since it is not specifically excluded, fingerprinting of faculty is on the table.)

A colleague who also underwent the same background checks at University X found that her fingerprint cards were deemed illegible by the FBI; rather than begin the process again, the vendor simply ran a check on her SSN instead. Thus, background checks run by the same vendor for the same institution cannot be said to be the same, or even to rely on similar sources of information. The inconsistent and varying practices of such vendors raises questions of accuracy and reliability. Indeed, I suspect that the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), passed in 1970, is not adequately designed to regulate the practices of the emerging market of data-brokers. When accused of violating FCRA’s protections for consumers, UIUC’s chosen vendor General Information Services took the contemptible stance of claiming a First Amendment defense of commercial speech. Thus, even when protections are in place, General Information Services has attempted to circumvent them for profit. Are we to subject the employees of the University of Illinois to these kinds of injustices? Our dwindling resources could surely be put to better use.

One of the major questions is the security of personal and confidential information as it travels back and forth across the country. This information is currently being sent to and handled by third-party vendors. Many of these data-brokers fare very poorly on employer review sites — the employees complain about low wages, lack of training, bad management, and low morale. These sites are as (un)reliable as RateMyProfessor, but given the apparently fraught working environments, populated with so many disgruntled employees, one wonders what measures have been taken to secure the privacy of confidential data. Even under ideal conditions, it is difficult to guarantee the security of information; just this week, confidential data (SSNs, results of drug tests, notes from physicians) appeared inexplicably on a public sub-domain of Amazon web services, a cloud computing platform.

In an added and final irony, I discovered that University X had decided two months ago that such rigorous background checks weren’t necessary for everyone. The time that I spent on “compliance” is gone, and my fingerprints and personal information are…who knows where?

Monetary outlay? $125.75.

Pointless invasion of privacy and exponentially increased likelihood of identity theft? Priceless.