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In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data

In 2001, the FBI announced a $2 million deal to buy i2 software over three years. Company officials said their software was used by the military to help find Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

In an interview, i2 Inc. President John J. Reis said analysts increasingly use the software to head off crimes or attacks, not just investigate them after the fact. "We are principally a company whose focus is all about converting large volumes of information into actionable intelligence," he said.

"The stakes have escalated since 2001," ChoicePoint Inc. chief executive Derek V. Smith said.

_____News Graphic_____
Information Control: The information industry has become an integral part of the U.S. economy and increasingly a contractor in the war on terror. A closer look at ChoicePoint, the Georgia firm that has become a one-stop show for private and government organizations seeking people's personal information.
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Transcript: The Post's Robert O'Harrow discussed his new book, "No Place To Hide," an exploration of the post-9/11 marriage of private data and technology companies forming a new security-industrial complex.
_____On The Web_____
No Place to Hide: A Multimedia Investigation Led by Robert O'Harrow, Jr. and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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Police, lawyers, private investigators, reporters and many others have been using commercial information services for years, as the availability of personal information skyrocketed during the 1990s. But those commercial services did not play such an important role in the secretive, high-technology realm once dominated solely by the National Security Agency and other members of the government intelligence community.

The government still maintains some of the world's most sophisticated eavesdropping and spy gear. But officials often depend on commercial systems for public records, identity verification and automated analysis, such as finding anomalous personal information that might suggest a person has hidden ties to risky groups. Growing numbers of commercial systems offer "scoring" services that rate individuals for various kinds of risks.

To expand its presence in the intelligence community, ChoicePoint hired a team of prominent former government officials as homeland security advisors in late 2003. They included William P. Crowell Jr., the former deputy director of the National Security Agency; Dale Watson, a former FBI executive assistant director of counter-terrorism and counterintelligence, and Viet D. Dinh, a former assistant attorney general and primary author of the USA Patriot Act.

Current and former government officials praise the new services as important to efforts to investigate criminal and terrorist activity and to track down people who pose a threat. But some of those same officials, including Pasquale D'Amuro, an assistant director at the FBI and head of its New York office, also expressed qualms about whether ChoicePoint and other information services operate with enough supervision.

"There are all kinds of oversight and restrictions to the federal government, to Big Brother, going out there and collecting this type of information," he said. "Yet there are no restrictions in the private sector to individuals collecting information across this country, which potentially could be a problem for the citizens of this country."

Hoofnagle, the privacy activist, recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming that ChoicePoint has worked hard to avoid triggering oversight under existing laws, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act. If ChoicePoint's reports about people are not legally considered consumer reports under the act, Hoofnagle said in the letter, then the law should be expanded to include them.

Hoofnagle's letter, co-authored with George Washington University law professor Daniel J. Solove, described the Fair Credit Reporting Act as a "landmark law that ensures that compilations of personal information used for many different purposes are accurate, correctable, fairly collected."

In a response, ChoicePoint said the thrust of Hoofnagle's letter was baseless. The Fair Credit Reporting Act was "not meant to be omnibus privacy legislation," the company's letter said. "Information used for investigative, law enforcement or governmental purpose is not regulated in the same manner as the information used to make decisions related to credit, insurance, or employment."

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