Do We Have a ChoicePoint?

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The Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing does a very detailed profile of leading private database compiling (and selling) company ChoicePoint. There are lots of great details about the company's history, wealth, and methods–as you might suspect, the database business is booming, with ChoicePoint stock nearly quadrupling in value since 1997. There are also some more frustrating stories about how hard it is, even with the Freedom of Information Act, to get certain bits of ostensibly public information out of government agencies if you are a citizen or journalist.

While the story seems intended to make you mistrust ChoicePoint–even in the sidebar in which the reporters fail to get ChoicePoint to cough up files on a co-worker–most of the details limn the point that ChoicePoint's James Lee stressed when I interviewed him for my Reason cover story in the August/September issue on John Gilmore's fight to fly anonymously: that most of the information ChoicePoint gathers comes from government sources to begin with, and that most of the truly alarming uses of it are government uses.

ChoicePoint does not have the power to arrest us, detain us, or deny us the use of any public service or any of our rights as a citizen. Certainly, the services they provide can be used as a tool by the state to do so. As this article details, a company that ChoicePoint later gobbled up did put together the lists that possibly denied thousands of Floridians the right to vote in 2000. But the ultimate denial, as always, came from a state agency. Contemplating the truly alarming aspects of ChoicePoint–its potential use as a tool for state repression (the company has received at least $30 million in federal money for "Homeland Security" purposes in the past two years)–is a good way to remember who our real enemies are when it comes to informational privacy.

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  1. And yet, I have to see one libertarian argument that a “informational privacy” is a somehow a human right along life, liberty and property.

  2. It took several re-readings to figure out that “database compiling” wasn’t software writing. Ah, somebody’s got your name. I don’t want to rachet up the worry, but check out the Quistgaard database http://www.mat.upm.es/~jcm/barthelme-plenum.html which several people have said is truly frightening.

  3. life, liberty and property.

    How are these human rights?

  4. I’ve seen one variety of Choicepoint reports, which we use when doing pre-employment background checks. They’re a little confusing but they do get a lot of info on you.

  5. Time to call in the 2600 kids.

  6. There is tacit consent to make items of personal information public knowledge when you use certain technologies.

    We need to move to a mindset where we understand that public knowledge is the rule, privacy is the exception. You need to have a contract with parties you transact with so that they are disallowed from using your information in a certain way.

    The government is scary on this front, too. You can’t not deal with them if they violate your privacy, provide information to parties you don’t want them to, and so forth. All privacy matters between you and the government on on their terms.

    As a matter of technological fact, we may be mostly screwed already regardless of whether we feel violated, much like the RIAA. Quantum encryption, anyone?

  7. I noticed reason is requiring e-mail addresses with posts. Functionally it’s optional – the entry is just as easily spoofed – so why is it required?

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