January 23, 2005


In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data (Robert O'Harrow Jr., January 20, 2005, Washington Post)

It began in 1997 as a company that sold credit data to the insurance industry. But over the next seven years, as it acquired dozens of other companies, Alpharetta, Ga.-based ChoicePoint Inc. became an all-purpose commercial source of personal information about Americans, with billions of details about their homes, cars, relatives, criminal records and other aspects of their lives.

As its dossier grew, so did the number of ChoicePoint's government and corporate clients, jumping from 1,000 to more than 50,000 today. Company stock once worth about $500 million ballooned to $4.1 billion.

Now the little-known information industry giant is transforming itself into a private intelligence service for national security and law enforcement tasks. It is snapping up a host of companies, some of them in the Washington area, that produce sophisticated computer tools for analyzing and sharing records in ChoicePoint's immense storehouses. In financial papers, the company itself says it provides "actionable intelligence."

"We do act as an intelligence agency, gathering data, applying analytics," said company vice president James A. Zimbardi.

ChoicePoint and other private companies increasingly occupy a special place in homeland security and crime-fighting efforts, in part because they can compile information and use it in ways government officials sometimes cannot because of privacy and information laws. [...]

[A]ctivists for civil liberties and privacy, and some lawmakers, say current laws are inadequate to ensure that businesses and government agencies do not abuse the growing power to examine the activities of criminals and the innocent alike.

These critics said it will soon be hard for individuals looking for work or access to sensitive facilities to ever shake off a criminal past or small transgression, such as a bounced check or minor arrest.

Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group in the District, said ChoicePoint is helping to create a " 'Scarlet Letter' society."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 23, 2005 8:16 PM

They do seem to forget that the significance of a scarlet letter is greatly diminished if everyone has one.

Posted by: Randall Voth at January 24, 2005 4:45 AM

Randall, that is a very salient point.

However, it is just another argument in favor of what millions of Americans should be doing, i.e. dropping out of the system. If you don't have an employer but instead work for yourself, why do you care what an employer can find out about you as a matter of public record? If you service ordinary folks rather than Fortune 500 companies employing thousands of bureaucrats with no real job description except to make work for other bureaucrats does it really matter?

There are public records and private records. An employer or credit agency cannot look into your school transcripts without your approval for example.

Posted by: Bart at January 24, 2005 6:52 AM