Last January, a soon-to-graduate UW-Madison student did something we all do: He Googled himself.
At the top of the search results was the Wisconsin court record of an old underage drinking citation, and an offer to have that record removed for $149. He reached for his credit card, but then called his dad first. The student's Internet search had unearthed a net of digital extortion.
In this instance, the information was on a website from a company called "Court-Records-Management." The company had "scraped" the Wisconsin's Circuit Court Access system, which means it sent in a robot to legally gather the information stored there. It then manipulated search algorithms to have its data and website appear near the top of a Google search.
In the corner was an offer to "depublish" the student's record from the company's website if he paid $149.
But that would not remove it from public view, nor would it be removed from the state public access site for the Consolidated Court Automation Programs, commonly known as CCAP. And there was no guarantee another data-scraping entrepreneur wouldn't do the same thing.
This commerce has been called "sleazy" by a Wisconsin open records advocate, "a problem in this and other states" by a state court records official, and "something that needs to be addressed legislatively" by a state legislator. A UW-Madison Internet security expert wondered why the state doesn't use common blocking techniques to foil these data-scraping robots.
The dad, a law professor who asked to remain unidentified because, he said, his son is applying to graduate schools, called the company a "parasite," one of the milder descriptions. Campus officials should warn students about potential, permanent harm to a student's reputation from drinking, he said.
He also thought there should be a mechanism for such records of minor violations to be expunged, conditionally, from the system.
That system is constantly being "scraped," legally and without cost, by companies that push it on to searches and then offer to "depublish" it, for a fee.
"We can't do much about it," said Jean Bousquet, who runs the state's online court system, adding that she has forwarded complaints to the state Department of Justice. Officials there said they are evaluating the matter to determine what legal options may exist to address it.
"We do provide bulk data for a fee for different firms and agencies, but (this operation) does not have an account with us," Bousquet said. "We know they definitely have CCAP records on their website (so) they are probably scraping ... grabbing data from our website."
Companies pay the state $500 per month or $5,000 per year for complete access to the system.
Bousquet got wind of the practice in January 2013 and said it appears CCAP data has been scraped for this particular purpose since 2012.
"It is not a good thing. I know it's a problem in Virginia and Texas," she said, adding that the state court system steering committee is looking into it. "We can't really stop it; we could try to block it."
Proposed legislation to limit entrepreneurs from charging consumers for state records that are otherwise free would not affect this practice, she said, because the company is not seeking payment for a copy of the record; it is seeking payment for removal of a record from its own website.
It's "borderline extortion," said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and an outspoken advocate of open records. He admitted he finds himself in an unprecedented position on this topic. "For much of the last decade I have been arguing that the public can be trusted to make responsible use of the information on (CCAP), but these groups are the exception," he said. "These groups are scum."
Lueders, who has spoken with the UW student's father, added that "I think it is appropriate for people to call attention to anything that appears (on the state court record system), but I don't think it is appropriate for them to put up information and then try to extort money from people for it to be taken off."
The easiest way to curtail the practice is to require data users to prove they are human, said Nicholas Davis, an Internet security expert and instructor in IT security at the UW-Madison's Division of Information Technology.
Charging to "depublish" public records from its own website is "ethically questionable behavior, and in my opinion cruel and mean, but it is the truth," said Davis. He recommends ignoring it: Paying "any outfit that is already engaging in unethical activity" is probably not wise because "what's keeping someone else from doing the same thing tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that?"
"What it really comes down to is if you don't like your name out there, change the laws or vote to change the laws," he said.
The state court system might be better protected from this sort of exploitation, "or at least slow it down," said Davis, if it changed the software code to require users prove they are humans. The Virginia court system does this. Bousquet said Wisconsin's database steering committee would consider it, but expected "lots of pushback" from people who use the site frequently.
Davis said that safeguarding an Internet reputation takes work, a topic he and others tell students in courses about good security practices.
"Your Internet reputation, not just in terms of tickets but also in pictures posted to Facebook, is permanent," he said. "Just because it isn't visible doesn't mean it's not there."
Bousquet noted last week that "Court-Records-Management" seems to have disappeared -- efforts to contact the company by email and telephone were unsuccessful -- but there are similar outfits trawling the same waters. One website prints mugshots and offers to "unpublish" them for $399 each; another mirrors the CCAP website with amazing accuracy, appearing to be official.
State Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, is a sponsor of a bill that would force disclosure requirements from companies that try to sell public information that is already free. Expanding that bill to cover manipulation of court system databases might be possible, he said.
"If there was a way we could include that kind of action, maybe a disclosure, I would love to do that," said Hebl.
Fear drives these companies' success, said Bousquet. "It plays to fears that even just one interaction with the courts will prevent someone from getting a job," she said.
Stopping the practice may be as easy as targeting the companies' pocketbooks, according to an Oct. 6, 2013 New York Times article on reputation-damaging mugshot sites. Asked about money-collecting policies for those types of sites, credit card companies responded that ties were being severed. "Victims" might contact those sites, too. Google also changed the way it evaluated those types of websites, resulting in lower placements in searches.
Julius Kim, a Brookfield criminal defense lawyer, said the Legislature could also make it illegal to charge people money to remove state-collected information from databases.
"Some states are starting to recognize this issue, using public information to another person's detriment, but that is not the case yet in Wisconsin," said Kim.
©2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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