Unregulated databases hold personal data

In the 2000 presidential election, Florida disqualified thousands of voters because a computerized database search identified them as felons who were ineligible to participate in the election.

Many of those voters weren’t, in fact, felons. They had been charged with misdemeanour crimes and should have been eligible to vote.

After following the government investigation of the election that uncovered these errors, Chris Hoofnagle, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, began to look into profiling agencies. Last week, he filed a lawsuit seeking to release information involving the purchase of data on individuals by U.S. government agencies from companies that sell personal data.

The ultimate goal is to have these companies regulated so that citizens have the right and ability to monitor and correct their profiles in these databases, Hoofnagle said.

DBT Online Inc. provided the database against which Florida checked its voter registration rolls to remove ineligible voters. Boca Raton, Fla.-based DBT was purchased by Alpharetta, Ga.-based ChoicePoint Asset Co. before the election but after the voter checks, according to ChoicePoint spokesman James E. Lee.

Lee acknowledged the problem and said he’s even in favour of regulation because of the potential for misuse. “It’s not about the availability of the information, it’s about the use,” he said.

DBT employees told Florida officials they would get precisely the types of incorrect results DBT did with the kind of query they ran, said Lee.

“Florida knew and said ‘OK,’ because supervisors would [manually] double-check [the query results]. But that never happened,” Lee said. By law, county commissioners are required to do those checks.

ChoicePoint maintains databases of public records, such as court documents and property records, which 7,500 law enforcement agencies across the U.S. use to help in their investigations. Private businesses, such as insurance companies, also use them to conduct fraud mitigation and background checks, Lee said.

Because information is often incorrect in the source documents, Lee said, it would be appropriate for regulation like the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That law lets individuals review their credit reports and submit requests for changes. ChoicePoint, however, isn’t regulated by the act.

EPIC said it filed a suit under the Freedom of Information Act after it had been denied information about government contracts with private profiling companies.

EPIC singled out ChoicePoint and Experian Information Solutions Inc., an Orange, Calif.-based subsidiary of Manchester, England-based GUS PLC, that maintains and sells information on U.S. citizens, including credit information, property records, state motor vehicle records, and marriage and divorce data.

Although Experian is regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, citizens may still not be aware that the government is using that data, Hoofnagle said. Among the agencies purchasing the data are the FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Marshals Service, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, EPIC said.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury didn’t respond to requests for information, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it wasn’t sure if it had been served with the lawsuit as of press time last week.

“Through the mining of public records and the purchase of credit reporting data, private-sector companies are amassing troves of personal information on citizens for the government,” said EPIC’s Hoofnagle. “Serious questions exist involving citizen access to profiles, their accuracy and the potential for misuse of personal information.”

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