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

Visit and you'll see the company's motto — "Smarter Decisions, Safer World" — pasted over the faces of children running across a field, or coasting on a swing set, or cuddling a puppy. You'll find promises about how ChoicePoint Inc. upholds the PATRIOT Act, assists in criminal investigations, and serves the needs of the federal government. And you'll read upbeat descriptions of what ChoicePoint does, such as "harness the positive power of information to make smarter decisions in a world challenged by increased risks." When ChoicePoint talks about "increased risks," it means another 9-11. And when it mentions "the positive power of information," it's referring to expansive dossiers the Georgia-based company — one of the world's largest private data miners — keeps on almost every American.

Are you a little queasy about unwittingly revealing your life's most minute details to a company that sells them to big business and the government? No worries, says ChoicePoint. Privacy, as we once knew it, is a thing of the past.

"We are beginning to see a shift in the traditional privacy debate from simply focusing on an individual's right to privacy, to also including consideration of society's right to protect itself," says a letter from ChoicePoint CEO Derek Smith in the company's most recent annual report. "ChoicePoint as a company and I as an individual continue to believe, however, that in a free society — particularly in today's society — we do not always have the right to anonymity."

Smith has a point. The world we live in is not the world we inhabited before 9-11. In today's world, it's obvious how serious the consequences can be when government intelligence fails.

As a result of that failure, ChoicePoint has assumed a powerful role, doing what even the feds aren't allowed to do — and at the same time raising fears that corporations are harnessing technology to intrude on our privacy.

ChoicePoint's mission is simple. The company amasses oodles of gigabytes of little pieces of just about every American's existence. Some of the information may be public and obvious, like property records or criminal histories. But one might mistakenly consider other pieces confidential or inconsequential, such as DNA samples turned over in a criminal investigation, or responses to a magazine survey asking where you last bought toothpaste, and what brand you chose.

ChoicePoint then packages the pieces for sale — to employers, insurance companies, direct marketers, state governments and nearly 40 federal agencies. If ChoicePoint shares your records with companies with whom you're seeking insurance or a job, you must first give ChoicePoint permission.

That's not the case with the government, whose agencies commonly access ChoicePoint's records to aid in investigations.

"They are part of this new multibillion dollar industry to record as much information as they can about as many people as they can," says Jay Stanley, of the ACLU. "Most Americans . . . would be quite spooked to discover that this company has many dossiers about their private lives."

Piecing together government-sponsored dossiers, particularly on the lives of Americans who aren't suspected of any wrongdoing, is precisely the type of behavior the Privacy Act of 1974 was written to prohibit. There's just one hitch with the 29-year-old law: It merely forbids the feds themselves from building the database. Back in the '70s, Congress wasn't convinced anyone but the government would be inclined to do such a thing.

Lawmakers failed to foresee that technology would make it a cinch to build what privacy advocates have long considered their greatest fear: a grand, centralized database. The result? What ChoicePoint and other data miners do is perfectly legal.

Sitting in his second-floor office, ChoicePoint Chief Marketing Officer James Lee contends that a company like ChoicePoint does a far better job protecting privacy than the feds could. The real intent of the Privacy Act wasn't to prevent the government from accessing databases, Lee argues, but to keep the feds from carrying out fishing expeditions in their own sea.

Lee says ChoicePoint's data is set up in such a way that the government can't fish — because the company doesn't actually sell its databases, but rather provides regulated access to them. In the absence of federal laws governing the use of private databases, Lee insists ChoicePoint has taken it upon itself to keep its own actions, as well as the government's, in check.

But with so little outsider access to ChoicePoint's databases, who's to ensure ChoicePoint always stays within its self-imposed guidelines?

For a company built on the idea of collecting information about everyone else, ChoicePoint's practices are surprisingly inscrutable. Even getting a peek at the info ChoicePoint has compiled on you isn't easy. Lee says the company is devising a service to make it simpler to review your own file.