ChoicePoint denies FBI offer violated info-sharing laws

Tech Culture

ChoicePoint representatives have refuted public concerns that its January 2000 business proposal to the FBI would have created a system that circumvented the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974 and allowed law enforcement officials to secretly access Americans' personal data. A ChoicePoint Spokesmen said Monday that theories such as the one published on the Web site for the Electronic Privacy Information Center hold no merit, as the company requires proof that an individual is being legally investigated, such as an arrest warrant, before it shares people's data with any law enforcement agency.

According to ChoicePoint, which tallied 9 percent of its business from its public/government customers in 2004, the company has always observed the existing regulations for selling personal data to law enforcement customers. The EPIC theory was generated by a set of documents procured from the FBI via the Freedom of Information Act of 2000. In those documents, ChoicePoint proposes that the FBI could gain access to many new forms of valuable data stored in its banks, including personal details drawn from e-mail registration forms, Web site cookies and even spyware applications.

The FBI has not returned calls seeking information on the business proposal, which ChoicePoint also refused to comment on specifically.

Despite ChoicePoint's claim of innocence, some privacy experts said they would not be surprised that the company, which has experienced a string of high-profile consumer data losses, would entertain such an approach to marketing itself to the FBI and others. In fact, Ray Everett-Church, an attorney who runs his own consulting company, PrivacyClue, said that ChoicePoint likely knew that the FBI might find such information particularly compelling.

"The fact that a database may have been collected secretly or in violation of individual privacy, such as via spyware, probably makes that data all the more valuable in the eyes of many," Everett-Church said. "(ChoicePoint's) business is to sell to the highest bidder, and law enforcement makes a juicy sales target."

The expert also contends that flaws in the Privacy Act may make it possible for ChoicePoint and the FBI to ignore existing consumer information protection regulations.

"Loopholes in federal privacy law prohibit the government from certain invasions of privacy, but allow private sector firms to do the dirty work and then sell that data to law enforcement for a profit," he said. "(That's) great work if you can get it, I suppose."

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