The Private Spy Among Us
Congress has joined privacy advocates in expressing concern about how the federal government is using data on U.S. citizens and foreigners gathered and analyzed by ChoicePoint in Georgia.
Although existing laws prohibit the government from keeping tabs on citizens and foreigners, the FBI and the Pentagon are using the data aggregator’s private databases, which hold information on nearly everyone in the country.
The FBI refuses to discuss its monitoring activities as well as its arrangements with ChoicePoint, which has legally obtained over 19 billion records for building profiles such as concealed weapons permits; marriage and death certificates; registrations for boats, aircraft, and automobiles; eviction notices; credit card information; hazardous-materials-handling permits; and employment histories.
The government considers people who have overstayed their visas to be security risks, and says relying on private data brokers is a more effective strategy for gathering information than sending investigators to courthouses and clerk’s offices across the country.
Nonetheless, lawmakers have started to introduce legislation to ensure that the federal government does not misuse the information, but privacy advocates say the bills are too limited in scope and are not as strong as legislation that is being introduced at the state level.
Moreover, reining in private data brokers will be difficult because they do not have to answer to Congress, says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “And the secrecy of most intelligence work makes them all but impervious to independent oversight,” he says. “If they broke or bent the law, we might never find out.”
Abstracted by the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center(NLECTC) from the National Journal (11/05/05) Vol. 37, No. 45, P. 3457; Harris, Shane .