Big Brother's little helper

How an Atlanta-based company won millions of federal dollars to mine information on Americans in the name of toppling terrorism

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Digging up the data is a far easier task for ChoicePoint's more privileged customers, such as the Justice Department, the I.R.S and the Department of Homeland Security. Some federal agencies even have special ChoicePoint sites, where government employees can log on and plug into the company's databases. There's ChoicePoint for the D.E.A at, for example.

But the public can't access such sites, which means ChoicePoint and its government clients just might know more about you than you know about yourself.

Not being able to see a ChoicePoint dossier sold to the government means not being able to correct mistakes. Want a really scary example of what can go awry when data collectors hand out bad information? Consider what happened in Florida leading up to the 2000 presidential election. In 1998, the state hired a company called Database Technologies to scrub its voter rolls of ineligible voters. The scrub list was mandated by Florida legislators after a voting fraud investigation revealed dead people had cast ballots in the 1997 Miami mayoral election.

DBT combed through Florida's rolls and handed over the "ineligible" list to elections officials in May 2000 — within days of the company's merger with ChoicePoint.

The problem was that DBT'S list purged the voter rolls not just of felons, who are disqualified from voting in Florida, but of eligible voters whose names resembled those of the felons.

While Florida and DBT failed to check a number of criteria that could have distinguished the actual felons from the non-felons, one criterion that DBT did bother cross-referencing was race. BBC reporter Greg Palast and a handful of U.S. journalists reported that the majority of the felons on the list were black, so thousands of legitimate black voters with the same names as black felons were struck from the rolls. Because Florida blacks vote heavily Democratic, a disproportionate number of votes for Al Gore were thrown out.

According to analyses by news organizations, somewhere between 8,000 and 22,000 qualified votes went uncounted. Whatever the number, it towers over 537 — the margin by which George W. Bush won Florida, and therefore the national election.

The most jarring part, according to Palast, who broke the story, was that DBT knew the list was flawed — because a Florida official told DBT, in a 1999 e-mail, "Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly aren't matches and let the county supervisors make a final determination." Palast says the fact that the company would even hand over known mistakes shows that it doesn't always do its best — contrary to its corporate mantra — to protect the government against itself.

No evidence has suggested that the purge of black voters was intentional, although it was a remarkably sloppy endeavor in a state long considered a key battleground in the 2000 election.

ChoicePoint denies responsibility for what happened in Florida. The scrub list was already complete when the company took over DBT, Lee notes. He also argues that ChoicePoint would never have been interested in such a project, because when it comes to anything so precious as voting rights "anything less than 100 percent accuracy is not acceptable."

On at least one other occasion when its databases became controversial, ChoicePoint again backed away from a project. Earlier this year, Latin American citizens protested ChoicePoint's sale of their personal information, including passport numbers and even blood type, to the U.S. government. "As soon as someone in Mexico said some — but not all — of this data may be — but not definitely is — confidential, we immediately segregated it and deleted it," according to Lee. "We discontinued the entire market line." He says the government contract for Latin American data expired Sept. 30.

Unfortunately, most of the work ChoicePoint does for the feds isn't open for public review, meaning that oftentimes no controversy can arise.

The casualty of business opportunities both in purging voter rolls and in Latin America won't exactly maim ChoicePoint. There remain scores of possibilities for the company to win government contracts. The company's mission is to protect us against immediate threats, perhaps at the expense of protecting age-old ones. That mission aligns nicely with the current goals of government and with the fact that protection at all costs has grown increasingly fashionable.

It's a brilliant business. Because as much as we claim to love civil liberties, the bloodshed of 9-11 is centuries fresher than blood spilled for the Constitution. A company like ChoicePoint doesn't thrive because it manipulates our wants. It thrives because it's a product of them.

If ChoicePoint were a library, it might be the largest building on Earth. Its computers will soon hold 200 terabytes of information. Compare that to the Library of Congress, whose 18-million books would constitute a mere 20 terabytes. The company began as an insurance-claims division of Equifax, the Atlanta-based credit-reporting agency. In 1997, Equifax spun ChoicePoint off with an IPO. Over the years, the new entity would gobble 42 competitors and complementary companies, all of them gatherers of different varieties of data. The acquisitions ranged from the leading provider of birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates, VitalChek, to the country's largest private DNA forensics lab, Bode Technologies.

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