ChoicePoint doesn’t only possess copious records on U.S. citizens (its subsidiary, VitalChek Network, provides the technology to process and sell birth, death, marriage, and divorce records in every U.S. state). It has also acquired data on some 300 million citizens of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica–a fact that emerged in 2003, after the company disclosed that it had bought data (reportedly including even passport numbers and unlisted phone numbers) on Mexico’s entire roll of 65 million registered voters. Whether ChoicePoint still retains this information is unclear since, as part of its $67 million annual contract with the U.S. Department of Justice, the company was supplying the information to the U.S. government, and Mexico, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica responded with arrest warrants–and in Mexico’s case, threatened to bring charges of treason–against the local individuals who’d sold the data to ChoicePoint. In June 2003, the company claimed to the relevant countries that it had expunged their citizens’ information from its databases.
Other products and services provided by ChoicePoint include the DNA identification of the victims of the Word Trade Center attacks on September 11 via its subsidiary, the Bode Technology Group (sold off by ChoicePoint in March), and SmartSearch, which performs “wildcard searches” that can construct a comprehensive personal profile in minutes, starting with only a first name or partial address. More controversially, ChoicePoint subsidiary Database Technologies (also known as DBT Online) was contracted to assemble a list of voters barred from voting by the state of Florida and was responsible for an alleged 57,700 people–primarily African-American and Hispanic Democrats–being incorrectly listed as felons during the U.S. elections of 2000. Other ChoicePoint divisions deliver all types of credential verification, employment-background screenings, drug testing, criminal records, motor-vehicle records, mortgage-asset research, tenant screening, database software, medical information, and services for the life- and health-insurance fields.
Would it be a good or bad thing, on balance, if the government were to farm out to ChoicePoint the administration of the watch lists in their entirety? Hendricks says, “I think it would overall be a very bad thing.” In this, Hendricks echoes the general sentiment among privacy advocates. At the Big Brother Award ceremonies held annually by U.K.-based Privacy International, ChoicePoint has twice been a winner: in 2001, as “Greatest Corporate Invader” for “massive selling of records, accurate and inaccurate to cops, direct marketers and election officials,” and again in 2005, as “Lifetime Menace Award” for its continuing efforts to build dossiers on individuals.
It’s extraordinary, of course, that private corporations should have had the means to accumulate–and trade–more personal data on Americans than the U.S. government possesses. Moreover, limited avenues for rectification and reparation are available to citizens in the face of the sea of errors that exist in these corporations’ databases. Nevertheless, in substantial measure, the privacy activists played no small part in bringing this extraordinary situation to pass, as we shall see in the second part of this article next week.