The post-9/11 marriage of private data and technology companies and government anti-terror initiatives has created something entirely new: a security-industrial complex. In his new book, Post reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr. shows how the government now depends on burgeoning private reservoirs of information about almost every aspect of our lives to promote homeland security and fight the war on terror.
O'Harrow was online to discuss his book, which was excerpted in Thursday's Washington Post. A transcript follows:
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Thank you for joining us today. Before we start with readers' questions, can you talk about how this book project got started and your partnership with ABC News and the Center for Investigative Reporting?
Robert O'Harrow: After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I saw that government was turning the private information services for help in tracking down terrorists. Police became much more aware of these services, too, and they sought more access than ever to the billions of personal details the companies maintain. I figured that was a story that needed telling, and the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco offered to help me do some digging.
How can you write this article and not even mention Choice Point's roll in the purging of the voter rolls in Florida 2000?
Robert O'Harrow: Good point, but as you know, a newspaper only has so much room. I decided to focus instead on the most recent news: That ChoicePoint and other information services are serving in effect as private intelligence contractors for the government. My new book, No Place to Hide, addresses the election troubles.
Read Robert O'Harrow Jr.'s piece from yesterday's Washington Post: "In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data."
Has Choicepoint information resulted in any cases being closed, or investigations resolved?
Robert O'Harrow: ChoicePoint and other information services have helped in hundreds of cases - thousands of cases. There's no question the companies' services work. The systems are amazing - and not just for law enforcement. Reporters and private investigators and lawyers and corporations of all kinds use them. The problem as I see it is that few of us understand this represents a new source of power in the country for decisions that have a big impact on our lives: whether we get jobs, travel, even whether we are detained by police or arrested outright.
I understand all this data is out there, and the government wishes to get to that data, but isn't the real question: what does the government intend to do with that data, and how might someone misuse that information?
Robert O'Harrow: Excellent point. I agree, to a degree. I believe we have a lot of homework to do first to understand these companies and the role they're playing in observing us with increasingly fine resolution.
How does the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search relate to the teaming of law enforcement, intelligence agencies and private companies that collect personal data to build a profile on U.S. persons?
In other words, if challenged would the Supreme Court likely find that there is an expectation of privacy and therefore the finished product, the profile is a violation of 4th Amendment protection?
There are people who make that argument. One specialist name James Dempsey says the data searches are akin to an electronic door to door search. But the 4th amendment doesn't apply to cameras in public spaces, if I'm not mistaken, and it doesn't apply to information from public records and other details that we have willingly traded for the conveniences and discounts and services we all love. Still, I'd bet that very few people realize what is really involved in the information tradeoffs they make all the time.
I was impressed by the ABC News piece last night and plan to read your book. There seemed to be some tension in the piece -- between the coverage of the very sophisticated data mining that private firms can already do, and the continued insistence by many people interviewed that the government's data mining abilities are far from Orwellian at this stage. Seems like a discrepancy to me. If private firms can do this stuff, can't Uncle Sam?
Robert O'Harrow: The government - apart from some intelligence community agencies - has a spotty track records when it comes to using the latest and greatest in information technology. Just look at the records-access system fiasco announced by the FBI. But don't forget: there are laws in place that limit the government's ability to amass personal information without a good, clearly articulated purpose. The private companies can often collect the data - with some restrictions - however they want.
i am intrigued with your article. i'd like to know how to find out all of the info that is out there on myself and how if needed to correct it. i have gotten the three credit reports recently but that is as far as i've gotten. i had been in trouble during my misspent youth and wanted to know how far back it would be held against me? also, i'd like some vendor availability info for your book please.
Robert O'Harrow: You raise a great point. It's going to be harder and harder for Americans to walk away from mistakes. Education records. Pot busts. Job histories. Bounced checks. You name the transgression, and there's a good chance that if it has been recorded somewhere, it could come back to haunt you. More so than ever before, because the companies are collecting data backwards as well as from the here and now.
smart cookie in va:
do you see any difference or relationship between what choicepoint and other data aggregators do and what the major credit reporting companies get away with? seems like consumers have always held the short end of the stick when it comes to discovering what sort of information private companies have about them - and how that information affects their daily lives. thanks.
Robert O'Harrow: In some respects, as you will find, it's becoming harder to distinguish among many of the information services. Credit bureaus, for instance, also are deeply involved in marketing, fraud detection and, now, consumer-protection services. Companies like ChoicePoint help law enforcement, intelligence and corporations track down people. They also help other companies do target marketing. Even the data they use is at some level the same: details about all of you.
You mentioned the Matrix. How many states were members, how many have left the system and is the government still trying to promote it?
Robert O'Harrow: I believe there are currently five states involved in Matrix. It's unclear how the system will be used going forward, since it was sold along with its parent company Seisint to LexisNexis last summer for about $775 million. It's a safe bet the amazing Matrix technology (so I'm told by those who use it) will become an important part of commercial homeland security services.
Given the positive results that data offered by Choicepoint and other companies yields such as day-care credentials, identity theft, and other similar issues, why is this service worrisome (as long as the data is accurate)? Frankly, with enough time an money an investigator could probably find the same information thru manual means.
Robert O'Harrow: Good question. It's important to note that data services often have bad and incorrect data. One group found that half of all credit report contain mistakes. As for whether an individual can gather ALL the same information, the answer is maybe, and even then it would take weeks, months or maybe longer. These systems pull down dossiers in subsecond time, drawing from up to 20 billion records about every adult in the United States. To me, that represents a new kind of information and power, in part because the computers can see links among people and tendencies in their behavior that a person may never see. And by the way, that's how police and companies describe what they do.
Bob, I haven't read your book yet, but I plan to. You seem to be suggesting in your story that the govt's purchase of all this consumer data casts a mysterious and ominous cloud over all of us and our privacy rights. To follow up on another poster's question more specifically, is there evidence that the government's purchase of this data has led to the arrests of known terrorist or helped to break up terrorist plots? If the answer is yes, do you think the trade-off was worth it?
Robert O'Harrow: Actually, I believe you will find I'm among the least mystery-minded, conspiracy-minded folks around. To me, the most interesting thing about all this stuff is that it's all here and now. One of the core questions I ask is actually very old fashioned: Is the partnership between the government and the private companies creating a new source of power to peer into our lives, to judge us. And, a la the founding fathers, do we have sufficient oversight of that power? Is there enough transparency? Are there checks to ensure that government officials - bad apples or overzealous authorities - don't misuse these extraordinary resources to come down on law abiding citizens without good cause. The answer: Not yet.
Seems that some of the conservative groups would have much to say about protecting personal privacy. Is this a topic where the left and right can actually agree?
Robert O'Harrow: It's a fascinating idea. In fact, some very right-leaning folks work closely with the left on these issues. Why? Because in their own ways, both sides sense that some core American values - personal autonomy, privacy, checks on government authority - are at stake. Even Viet Dinh, a primary author of the Patriot Act says in the radio documentary that he's not comfortable that enough law are in place to oversee the partnership between the government and the information industry.
New York, NY:
News reports about identity theft and Big Brother-type companies like Choicepoint scare people and push politicians to close down open records laws. There is a tension between public accountability law, which prevent or expose abuse, and the notion of privacy. There is a subtle nuance to the issue and one that I don't think that the TV program properly addressed.
Privacy is breached when the government collects your information. Public accountability is damaged when you shut down access to the information.
How do you reconcile the two?
Dead on question and one of the most important we face. I believe we must take on the task of understanding the data revolution and find a way to strike the balance between the obvious benefits offered by information technology - and our longstanding desire to check the government's authority to meddle. We expect to have a right to be left alone. But I've seen public officials use the privacy issue to cut off access to public records that reporters and regular citizens must have to hold officialdom accountable. Very cynical in some cases. I don't have the answer, but we have to find it, particularly at a time when, in my judgement, our government is going too far in trying to blanket its activities in secret.
Who are all these companies. I remember Acxiom from the 2000 election. I see Claritas and others helping private companies with data. Who are the main players? ChoicePoint and these?
Robert O'Harrow: It's a long list that varies depending on what services you're interested in. Some of the information companies include Acxiom, one of the world's largest data marketing specialists, ChoicePoint, a background screening company that also assesses risk, LexisNexis, one of the giants and also a law enforcement and intelligence contractor. The credit bureaus are deeply important to all of the above - and to our economy.
New York City:
Just heard you on WNYC
I second the comment on the FBI fiasco... gives credence to the old saw:
when an engineer wants to cross the river, s/he assembles the steel and builds the bridge... when computer geeks or defence contractors want to cross the river, they begin by building the steel mill!;
the technology was out there... why did FBI have to start "re-inventing the wheel"????
Robert O'Harrow: Sounds like a great rhetorical question...
Thanks for your valuable contribution to the discussion of these issues.
I look forward to reading Mr. O'Harrow's book, and trust that it also addresses privacy concerns from a more basic (and usually more impactful) perspective as well. Those who think that they have nothing to hide should consider the fact that one doesn't need to indulge in conspiracy theories about Big Brother to recognize persistent and abundant threats to their own security -- physical, financial, and emotional -- which increase every day as a result of unregulated data collection and mining.
Does anyone really think that the computer system administrators at their office do NOT read their e-mail when they're bored ? They do. (Trust me, I used to be one, and worked with people who browsed 'secure' communications, including HR and health insurance records for fun.) And what about the clerk or janitor who has the password to the WNYC caller's electronic building access logs ? Could it possibly be easier to case an apartment for burglary, and be subsequently cover the tracks of the thief ? How many stories have we seen in the news -- and how many more have not been publicly disclosed -- about low-level phone operators who steal credit card numbers and even entire identities of their employers' customers ? What about the new systems being implemented to electronically track children as they board and exit school buses ? Are parents sure that there is not a child predator amongst the unseen computer operators at those companies ? (The NY Times did a piece on these systems a few weeks ago.)
Robert O'Harrow: enough said. thanks for the posting.
Falls Church, Va:
In your article, you mention that i2 analyst notebook was used to help capture Iraq's President. Did you confirm that with the military's commander?
I saw a letter once that contradicted that statement. I heard they had a hard time using i2 notebook in the field. It's a bold statement and I'm sure it will sell lots of software, however, I don't think it is 100% accurate. Please check with the military and see if you can collaborate that information.
Robert O'Harrow: I heard it from a couple of sources. As we have learned about the events in Iraq, it's hard to be absolutely certain. But that's what the company has said on several occasions and reported by us at the Washington Post.
They used to say about computers "garbage in,garbage out". In your opinion, is it now possible to get meaningful information from mega dumps of mostly mundane data?
Robert O'Harrow: It's not only possible, it happens all the time. But of course it depends on the questions you ask. When asking who might buy a new Ford or box of cereal or a magazine, that's one thing. I get a little apprehensive when I think about how flawed data is used to decide whom to investigate or allow on an airplane and such...
With so much of our lives wired into the Internet already, how would you suggest that regular citizens exercise leverage against the business agendas of the information systems industry?
I guess they could buy a banner ad on a Web site instead of carrying a sign in front of utility company office, but what happens if the site keeps getting hit with denial of service attacks?
Robert O'Harrow: I believe people ought to think more about the promises they're given, how their information is being used, and whether the information tradeoffs they make are really worth it? It would be foolish to give up the fruit of the Information Age. I'm not going to. But we need to be more discriminating and, I can't stress enough, find out more about the how commercial information technology, surveillance and the like is being used for homeland security.
Falling Waters Wv.:
I find it interesting that everyone gets upset when they find out the government might look at a record of their bounced checks,Etc, but scream for more research on Government employees every time there is more leaks or spy stories, Why is it bad for the government to know anything about you but it is totally ok to put some Government clerk on a Polygraph?
I am reminded of the moving speech that Dwight Eisenhower gave in 1961, when he left the White House. He said: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the combined weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
If these tactics need to be restricted, what would be required; legislation or a constitutional amendment since there is no specific right to privacy in the constitution?
Robert O'Harrow: I'm not sure how it will play out. You're right that privacy is not spelled out in the Constitution, though of course the 4th amendment is very important as a check on the government.
Very cool graphic in the online version of the paper.
Who would I contact for reprint permission for the graphic for a professional journal article on FIOA, Privacy Act and Public Records?
washingtonpost.com: This page on washingtonpost.com has details on obtaining reprint rights.
The graphic the reader mentioned is here.
The idea of a government that has access to vast amounts of personally identifiable data is quite disturbing for many Americans, but we willingly give over private information to private companies. We do so even though many of us now understand that private companies sell off our information, allowing for the possibility that it can be stored in a single repository (e.g. ChoicePoint). If we feel that government should have access to this information for the limited purpose of fighting terrorists, but can't trust the government to not expand its use, could we devise a regulated, oversighted environment where private companies provide this service to the government?
Robert O'Harrow: That's sounds reasonable. The challenge: really understanding how all of this stuff works, how the government is relying on it and how regular folks fit in. Then there's the tough task of finding a way to get the most out of these systems while at the same time blocking misuses by police, companies and others.
I have to sign off soon. Those who are more interested can visit noplacetohide.net, a web site created by the Center for Investigative Reporting, which also gave me financial to dig around on this stuff.
Robert O'Harrow: Thanks much for joining me. You have sent along a set of fascinating questions. I hope you all keep watch as all of this continues to percolate...
Thanks Bob, and thank you everyone who wrote in today. Again, here's a link to the excerpt of "No Place to Hide" that ran in yesterday's Washington Post.