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If a former employer or colleague ever gave any of this information without me giving them as references I would be pissed. Maybe it is a cultural/personal thing (no FB, no G+, no twitter) but I take privacy VERY seriously and I expect people I deal with to do as well. If I have to provide a reference, I always contact the person first and ask if it is ok to give their details to the company that will contact them. I actually had a few people that asked me not to give their details (not due to the reference, but because of sharing contact details with people they don't know). On the other hand, I've been in the Bay Area for a bit, and seems everyone and their mother is happy to let everyone know every minute of their fucking lives, so I can understand why people think it isn't a big deal.

I myself think hearing about cold-call reference checks from past coworkers when getting a job would make me think twice about an employer. It's annoying, perhaps inconsiderate -- that doesn't mean it's unethical, or a show of power of all things. The main reason is that here my friends are getting annoyed, and to a small degree the information leakage. (You could probably also get in touch with a set of people you select, without going around the candidate.) A non-cold-call check, between people that know each other, is different because it lacks this factor.

I think you, informally, have a reasonable expectation of privacy that people won't go broadcasting stuff about your behavior in an office, but not a reasonable expectation that people would not help individual colleagues avoid wasting five or six figures of money, not to mention a lot of personal stress and annoyance, by trading money for time with a certain person. The office is not a confession booth, or even a private household. You're probably willing to share details about how you got treated by sellers on eBay -- likewise, the workplace is not a completely personal situation.

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