Morality of using public court records for marketing



I’m trying to do an internet startup with some friends, and face the following privacy dilemma. In the US, most court records are publicly available. We could use that source of data in an automated way to better market certain products to our customers. We’d be matching the records to named individuals. Example: if John Smith is looking at our website and through an automated query our system finds out he was just declared bankrupt, we can suggest something that other people in this situation tend to buy.

Now, my friends think this is fine, because the information is public. I agree that it being public is a good thing, because it ensures transparency of court proceedings. However, it seems to me even though it’s public, we shouldn’t use it. My reasons are that it wasn’t made public for such a purpose, that most people likely wouldn’t like that if the data was about them, and that some of the data is just too personal, e.g. divorce records.

On the other hand, I know I can be oversensitive in moral matters, so I hoped to see what other people think. Since it’s very important to me that our business only does what is right, I think I’m going to quit unless either my friends change their minds, or there’s clear indication here that I’m going overboard in my concern. Many thanks! God bless.


There are literally thousands of companies which earn their existence doing just that.

Not immoral. Maybe icky, but not immoral.


It seems it could be immoral. If someone went through a divorce, what kind of ads would you be sending them? “Find a new partner now!”? Or is it possible that you might open wounds that have begun to heal? I know if I declared bankruptcy a few years ago (or recently, doesn’t matter), I would not want to remember it; I would want to move on, and companies going out of their way to dig into my personal life to market to me so that they can make a profit would really irk me. I’d feel like they don’t care as long as they make money. That’s one more thing I wouldn’t want in my life, especially if I was going through some hardships. Do your friends really want to dig into someone’s wounds just to make money? Unless they’re offering a beneficial solution, it seems like they shouldn’t. How would you feel if you were in a situation like that and a company used your information in the way your friends plan to?

Public doesn’t necessarily mean it should be used. Pornography is public, should somebody use it? Also, just because other companies do it does not mean it is not immoral.

You are not being overly sensitive. You are being considerate.


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