Video: Are criminal search sites an attack on privacy?

Helen Popkin
updated 7/23/2008 7:27:37 PM ET 2008-07-23T23:27:37

“Do you really know who people are?” That’s the slogan for pay site's freshly launched (and totally free!) companion site, Do you want to know? Everybody has something to hide — so the cliché goes. That’s where comes in.

Totally free and possibly the most intuitive Web site of its sort, painstakingly culled and standardized the disparate record-keeping practices of counties, municipalities, cities and states to provide an almost-instant snapshot of neighborhoods and people with criminal records.

Parents may favor the comprehensive Sex Offender section of the site, which includes photos and details of offenses with its record returns. Meanwhile, privacy advocates are apoplectic. What’s more, critics decry such sites as yet another attack on America’s privacy — not to mention potentially disastrous inaccuracies, incorrect or incomplete information provided by the original record keepers.

Still, nobody’s talking about the totally awesome aspect of this whole criminal record compilation. Why settle for Google stalking your ex when you can confirm your worst suspicions by looking them up on Who wants to read about happy marriages and job satisfaction on Facebook?

Do it! Do it now! your ex!

That Power Point presentation can wait an extra minute. If you’ve ever questioned for one second the direction your life’s taken — or even if you haven’t — it may do wonders for your self-assurance. I myself never doubted ditching that age-inappropriate bad boy once I finally extracted myself from that unfavorable situation in my late teens. For years however, I did beat myself up for the length of time it took me to finally see the light. But two seconds on washed away any remnants of self-recrimination that may’ve been lurking.

My ex Loser’s name returned almost-immediate confirmation that getting out of that relationship — not to mention that state — was the right choice, even if it took me longer than I’d prefer. There, under Loser’s name, corresponding birthday and county of residence was an early conviction that occurred before we became involved, one of which I was previously aware.

(Sad to say, at the time, his run-in with Johnny Law was part of the attraction – that’s before I wised up and started finding my dates in music magazine classifieds, under “Guitarist Available.”)

In the years since I ended my acquaintance with Loser, there were a couple of shocking additions to Loser's record — most appalling, a record of child abuse/neglect accompanied on the same date with a creepily oblique “O” offense for “Other.” ( conveniently color codes offenses with letters for quick reference: Red “S” for sex offense, purple “V” for Violent, etc.)

My inner Sherlock piqued but stomach nauseous, I chose not to pay the $40 to get further details from the affiliated Instead, I called a friend and insisted she do the same. Always game for a good Internet scavenger hunt, she inserted the name of a former beau she knew for a fact had some sort of police record related to owning a pet wolf that mauled some dude — and fully expected to see his name pop up with the specified “O” icon.


So I turned to my sister. Seeing as we share a genetic predisposition for bad seeds, I felt certain she’d get some positive returns in the ex department. Instead, she decided to search for herself.

What she found was a woman of a similar name living in an entirely different state and a list of that woman’s traffic offenses — yet no acknowledgement of my sister’s identity let alone her own speeding ticket legacy. Disappointed, she made what some might consider a risky move and looked up her husband — fully expecting to find his own collection of traffic offenses.

Again, nothing.

So she tried Charles Manson and came up with many — but none that appeared to be THE Charles Manson. So she tried some more recent notorious criminals of somewhat less renown, (who, along with Charles Manson, she never, ever dated) and found their records straight away.

Then she was on to her ex-husband, a man we lovingly refer to as “Wingnut.” Alas, nothing. A search for our other sister’s husband also proved an exercise in futility as we’re unsure of his birthday and he shares a ridiculously common name. She then moved on to her neighbor, of whom she’d heard rumors of a youthful indiscretion. But again, there were so many people who shared his name, the search was inconclusive.

My sister reasoned that she could probably find out his birthday and search again, but by then, she was bored. What’s more, he's good guy and also a friend so she wasn’t so sure she really wanted to know what he did in his younger years. Which, given omissions and possibilities of incorrect or misinterpreted information, is probably the best policy when using such sites. Consider it like your horoscope — for entertainment value only.

Like my friend, who we’ll call “Grumpy.” He checked up on each member of his family just for giggles and learned that his buttoned-down uncle got busted for drug possession in 1979.

“Wow!” Grumpy reported. “I love this Web site.”

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