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In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data

ChoicePoint started as a spin-off from Equifax Inc., the credit bureau and information service. It was considered an underperforming division, with its main source of revenue coming from the insurance industry. ChoicePoint examined credit records and other personal information to help top insurers assess customers and vet insurance applications for signs of fraud.

Smith and other ChoicePoint executives wanted much more. Intent on becoming a national data and analysis clearinghouse, the company went on a buying spree. ChoicePoint bought one company that screens new employees for signs of illicit drug use. It purchased another that specializes in the use of DNA to identify people, living or dead. In 2002, it bought VitalChek Network Inc., a Nashville company that provides the technology and networks to process and sell birth, death, marriage and divorce records in every state.


"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.
_____Live Discussion_____
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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It collected data in other ways, too. Through an employee screening system called Esteem, the company compiles reports from dozens of retailers such as Target, Home Depot and others about employees who have admitted to, or been convicted of, shoplifting.

For a time in 2003 and last year, ChoicePoint even offered a background-check-in-a-box sold on the shelves of Sam's Club. The $39.77 package included a "How To Hire Quality Employees" handbook, a CD containing an online background screening package and one complimentary drug test.

By 2003, ChoicePoint could claim to have the leading background screening and testing business in the nation, analyzing job applicants, soccer coaches, day-care workers and Boy Scout volunteers. About 5 million criminal records searches that year turned up almost 400,000 applicants or others who had recent criminal records.

Since its inception, Smith said, his company has focused primarily on making the country a safer place, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Smith said he recognizes that there have to be limits on what his company can do, if only to maintain the trust of the many millions of people whose information fuels his business.

"Whatever the country decides to do, I'm willing to accept, as long as it's done in an enlightened way," Smith said. "The stakes have escalated since 2001."

Some reporting for this story was done for Robert O'Harrow's book, "No Place to Hide," published by Free Press, copyright 2005. O'Harrow also received financial assistance from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

O'Harrow will be online at 11 a.m. tomorrow to talk about this article and his book. Go to www.washingtonpost.com/technology.


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