Informus Informs Us:
Employment, Gossip, and Fear

Technopolis 1.5, by Michael Jensen
originally published in Breeze, July 1996.

If you've been following these columns at all, you know that I've been encouraging a kind of "information activism"--a taking-back of our own information before it becomes subsumed in and consumed by the great late-capitalist info-economy. Or words to that effect. I've tried to trumpet a few calls-to-arms, saying that the Big Money Boys were driving the information culture toward their own ends, with abstract or imagined fears (watch out or they'll GIT you) as the justification.

Allow me to quote from Technopolis 1.3:

I know how easy it is to correlate database information, as long as there's some structure, some linking correlative between information bits. Give me the databases of Visa/MC, the Mortgage companies, and the hardware stores in your community, and I could, as an amateur, find out which of your neighbors are probably doing renovation in their homes. With one more database--city housing--I could tell you which of them hadn't filed for a permit for that renovation.

It would take me a little while--maybe a couple of weeks at worst--once I had the data. But imagine what the pros do.

Recently I found some pros, whose work is a chilling, concrete proof of much of what I fear. In Webster, an e-newsletter on Web developments I get biweekly, was a reference to a company called Informus, ( which was listed as an "employee validation" system. I webbed over to it, and what I found dumbfounded even techno-cynic me.

The "service" is presented as "The Human Resource Professional's Choice For Employment Screening Nationwide"--a mechanisms for employers to check into the character and quality of potential employees. After paying the $250 "employer registration fee," you can get the following reports:

Report					Price		Turnaround
Credit Reports				 7.00 		Instant
Social Security Number Search		 8.00 		Instant
Name Search by Previous Address		12.00 		Instant
Nearest Neighbors List			10.00 		Instant
Previous Employment Verification	 8.00		2-3 Days
Military Verification			 8.00 		2-3 Days
Education Verification			 6.00 		2-3 Days
Personal Reference Check		 6.00 		2-3 Days
Professional License Verification	 6.00 		2-3 Days
What a deal. And wait, there's more: For any "potential employee" you can get 1) "Worker's Comp" history reports, 2) motor vehicle records, and even 3) criminal reports, all from the comfort of your own home or office. For Indiana, like for most states, the prices are exceedingly reasonable:

Report		Price	Turnaround	Requirements	Special
Motor Vehicle	7.00 	Overnight	DL #

Workers' Comp	9.00 	2 Hrs		Name, SSN, &
(Statewide)	15.00 	10 Days		Name, SSN, &
					DOB		Signed Release
(County)	16.00 	3 Days		Name, SSN, &

They give you a handy online city-county cross reference for your state, in case you need to identify for Informus the county that Bogle Corner is in (Greene).

Why, you may ask, would any employer need this information about a potential employees? Let's go to Informus's own words (that have no mention of copyright anywhere on the site, by the way):

(From Informus)
Why Do I Need A Workers' Comp Report?
Workers' Compensation Insurance is skyrocketing. Much of that increase is due to fraud and deception on behalf of workers who would rather get paid to not work. Informus gives you the tools you need to weed out fraud before it ever hits your payroll. After a conditional offer of employment has been made, many states allow you to screen applicants for workers' compensation claim histories.

Note: It is very important to not discriminate against a worker solely because of a previous injury. If you have any questions, please consult a labor attorney or e-mail us at

I feel so relieved by that last disclaimer. And why might an employer want to receive the Criminal Report? Again, in Informus's own words:

Why Do I Need A Criminal Report?
In many states, running a criminal search helps show due diligence to avoid neglegent [sic] hiring claims. If the applicant in question will be responsible for handling cash or equipment, dealing with customers one-to-one, or be working unsupervised for extended periods, this search is a must for your screening package.

Here's an example of the kind of Criminal Report information you could get from Informus, for your $15 to $20:

(From Informus:)
Last Name First Name DOB Sex Race SSN FBI No SMITH JOEL D 12/02/56 M W 001-31-3216 132354JA1 Length of Sentence: 00 days 00 months 04 years Offense Sentenced Begin State County SALE CONTR SUB 06/28/87 05/21/87 MS FORREST
My goodness, that's helpful! Mr. Smith was convicted for selling (some kind of) drugs! I wonder if I should hire him?

And motor vehicles?

(From Informus:)
Why Do I Need A MVR?
An MVR is an absolute must if the position in question calls for the applicant to operate a motor vehicle of any type. It is the first step in DOT certification, and it is also a great way to verify the identity of the applicant.

MVR's are available instantly through Informus in 16 states and usually overnight in the remaining states, so there are no excuses to put a new hire behind the wheel before running this search. Prices and search criteria vary by state.

Right-o, I say. A great way to verify the identity of an applicant. Even if I don't want him to be a driver, I can find out what sort of character he has by judging his driving record.

Best of all, it's so easy!

(From Informus:)
To sign up with Informus, we need three simple things. First we need a signed contract. This contract is essential for liability purposes. Second, we need a completed credit application to know more about your company. We ask for three credit references so that we can establish your payment ability. Finally, Informus charges an initial $250 sign up fee. This covers the ongoing costs of support and service of your account.

Yep, that's right: any employer can use it--and the Internet empowers the small and the large employer alike:

(From Informus:)
Put simply, Informus is a resource for every business. Whether you have 10 or 10,000 employees, the need for accurate and objective information about applicants is the same. Informus provides that information instantly via the Internet. We put the tools where they can do the most good... in your hands. Call us at 1-800-364-8380 to request additional information and let our staff consult with you to design the right program for your screening needs.

Okay, enough fun. If you've read this far and are already planning on changing your employing mechanisms to routinely include these "background checks," go to hell, or continue reading and I'll try to put you back on the Good Road. If you've read this far and are feeling kidneypunched, then help build that road.

This is awful. This is precisely what I was talking about in previous columns, when I wrote that "they" know more about us than our friends do, and that "they" will be integrating all this information using relational database technology. All that surprises me is how rapidly it arrived, and how cheap it is.

This is so bald, open, blatant, and frightening that it's Kafkaesque, Orwellian, and Stalinist by turns, regardless that it's capital pushing this totalitarianism forward. There's nothing stopping an "employer" from using Informus to find out about friends, politicians, relatives, business competitors, as well as employees. I've had employers who would be delighted to use this service for all those things.

The information is all "public," insofar as the content is concerned. The difference is that in the old days before computers, it would have taken a trip to the county courthouses, to the state motor vehicle department, to the Department of Defense; letters to universities, calls to previous employers, etc.

It would have taken hundreds of hours or more to get the kind of information that it's now possible, with one set of information (all taken directly from your employment application or available elsewhere), to get for $118. Yep, every report mentioned above, including the top table, for $118 (not including the initial one-time-only $250 signup fee).

This is like the difference between sending 100,000 ground troops to obliterate Hiroshima, and dropping a couple of bombs. Or the difference between taking the Oregon Trail to California with a wagon, and flying there for a conference. These efficiencies of scale are transformative; it changes what you would be willing to do. And consequently they are very, very dangerous.

There's no way to know whether 12 of these 13 reports are being run on you when you are applying for a job (the crime report sometimes requires a signed release). There's no way to know what false information you're fighting against, without finding some company willing to give you (or sell you) a copy of these reports (for those socially conscious entrepreneurs out there, here's a real business-- intermediating, for say $150, as a "potential employer" of people as "consultants," and handing over the reports to the payee).

But most people, who aren't aware of Informus and "services" like it, won't even wonder. They'll just be denied an interview, denied a chance to explain their history: it's less legally dangerous to simply reject an application out of hand than to explain why you're rejecting it. Employers are always afraid of lawsuits.

Blacklisting is illegal, but using "publicly available" and "objective" information to deny access to an interview isn't. It's illegal for employment forms to have a slot for "race," but they can use the information on that form to get your credit report, and prejudge your worth according to it. Or get your Criminal Record and prejudge according to that. Or your Worker's Comp record.

There should be a fundamental difference between "publicly available" information and "easily available" information. Right now, there's no legal difference. I think there should be. I think it should be my right to rebut the information others have collected regarding me.

Perhaps erroneous credit reports should be considered corporate libel. Perhaps "publicly available" databanks of dirt about capitalist abuses--employer blacklisting--are in order. And perhaps we should be raising questions about this sort of thing with our representatives, at the city, county, and state levels. Informus wouldn't exist if the cities, counties, and states weren't allowing access to their databanks--or in some cases supplying or selling access.

Informus represents a nadir of privacy invasion in the information age. I hope it stays the nadir--that is, I hope nothing exceeds it. If anything does, it will be deeply, truly awful for us as a society.

The end-time fanatics speak of the Mark of the Beast, prophecying that we'll all have barcodes tattooed to our wrists, so the Antichrist can track our history, our crimes, our every action, our every purchase, our every movement.

If we don't start getting vocal about our rights as citizens in the face of these invasions, and getting educated about the ethical underpinnings and imperatives of technological change, within a few years we won't even need that bar code--simply a name and address (and occasionally a SS#) will suffice.

Forward to "Informus II", a followup to this article

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