Governments across Latin America have launched investigations after revelations that a US company is obtaining extensive personal data about millions of citizens in the region and selling it to the Bush administration.
Documents seen by the Guardian show that the company, ChoicePoint, received at least $11m (£6.86m) last year in return for its data, which includes Mexico's entire list of voters, including dates of birth and passport numbers, as well as Colombia's citizen identification database.
Literature that ChoicePoint produced to advertise its services to the department of justice promised, in the case of Colombia, a "national registry file of all adult Colombians, including date and place of birth, gender, parentage, physical description, marital status, passport number, and registered profession".
It is illegal under Colombian law for government agencies to disclose such information, except in response to a request for data on a named individual.
One lawyer following the investigations described Mexican officials as "incensed", and experts said the revelations threatened to destroy fragile public trust in the country's electoral institutions. In Nicaragua, police have raided two firms believed to have provided the data, and the Costa Rican government has also begun an inquiry. Other countries involved include Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Argentina and Venezuela.
The identities of the firms supplying ChoicePoint with the data are unknown, since the company says its contracts ensure confidentiality, although it insists all the information was obtained legally.
Exactly how the US government is using the data is also unknown. But since it focuses so heavily on Latin America, it would appear to have vast potential for those tracking down illegal immigrants. It could perhaps also be used by US drugs enforcement agents in the region.
ChoicePoint, though, which is based near Atlanta, is far from unfamiliar to observers of the Florida vote of 2000 that decided the US presidency in George Bush's favor. Its subsidiary Database Technologies was hired by the state to overhaul its electoral registration lists - and ended up wrongly leading to the disenfranchising of thousands of voters, whose votes might have led to a different result.
Investigations in 2000 and 2001 by the Observer and the BBC's Newsnight program concluded that thousands of voters had been removed from the lists on the grounds that DBT said they had committed felonies, preventing them from voting. In fact, the firm had identified as "felons" thousands of people who were guilty of misdemeanors, such as, in at least one case, sleeping on a park bench.
Then it produced a revised list of 57,700 "possible felons", which turned out to be riddled with mistakes because it only looked for rough matches between names of criminals and names of voters. James Lee, a vice-president of ChoicePoint, told Newsnight that Florida, governed by Mr Bush's brother Jeb, had made it clear that it "wanted there to be more names [on the list] than were actually verified as being a convicted felon". Mr Bush's eventual majority in Florida was 537.
Since the election, ChoicePoint has been the beneficiary of a huge increase in the freedom of government agencies to gain access to personal data. The USA patriot act, passed after September 11, allows government investigators to gain access to more information on US citizens without a search warrant, and to see data on private emails with such a warrant but without a wiretap order. The act also means banks must make their databases accessible to firms such as ChoicePoint.
In Mexico, the president of the federal electoral institute, Jose Woldenberg, revealed that his investigators had talked to the Mexican company that said it paid a "third person" 400,000 pesos (£24,500) for a hard disk full of personal data drawn largely from the electoral roll. It sold this to ChoicePoint for just $250,000, indicating the huge profitability of ChoicePoint's contracts - last year's $11m payment was part of a five-year contract worth $67m.
"The companies had to know that it is forbidden to use the information in the electoral register for any other purpose than elections," said Julio Tellez, a specialist in Mexico's information laws at the Tec de Monterrey University. "It is a federal crime to misuse the information, and they did that by selling it and putting it in the hands of a foreign government."
Mr Tellez said he believed that this makes the companies and the US government liable to prosecution.
The sale of information from the electoral register is particularly devastating in Mexico, because the electoral institute enjoyed a close to unique reputation for honesty and transparency in a country plagued by corruption.
"We feel betrayed. The IFE [federal electoral institute] was the only Mexican organization we could trust," said Cesar Diaz, a Mexico City supermarket administrator whose feelings were echoed by many. "I mean, if we can't trust them who can we believe in? I think it will have repercussions in the next elections."
Britain's much stronger data-protection framework probably means ChoicePoint could not make similar wholesale purchases of databases from the UK, and a similar situation exists across the rest of the EU. But the Latin American states "don't have data protection on the level of Europe", said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based pressure group which obtained the purchasing and advertising documents.
ChoicePoint was taking advantage of those more relaxed laws to profit from the US's "increasing reliance on private companies to obtain data on persons of interest to law enforcement", he said.
But the US government has shown itself eager to enhance the amount of data it can gather on people across the world, including those in the UK. In February, Washington announced that it would be seeking access to credit card details and other information on all travelers entering the US. Britain, too, is proposing laws which would give state agencies wide-ranging access to information regarding telephone and email use, though ministers insist their plans will not now include the content of such communications.
In a statement provided to the Guardian, ChoicePoint strongly denied breaking any laws and said it was cooperating fully with Mexican authorities. "All information collected by ChoicePoint on foreign citizens is obtained legally from public agencies or private vendors," the statement said.
The statement insisted that "ChoicePoint did not purchase election registry information and our vendor has verified that the information we purchased was not from the padron electoral [Mexico's central registry of electors]". But that claim is called into question by the company's advertising documents. Those documents, dated September 2001, explicitly boast that ChoicePoint can offer a "nationwide listing of all Mexican citizens registered to vote as of the 2000 general election - updated annually".
Asked how the US government is using the data, Greg Palmore, a spokesman for the bureau of immigration and customs, said it was helping to trace illegal immigrants but only if they were guilty of another crime. Asked to confirm whether the data was used by his bureau only to pursue criminals, he said: "Mainly."
ChoicePoint insists that it requires all its subcontractors to sign pledges that they are not breaking the law. But legal experts say that would offer it scant protection if the Latin American police inquiries were to result in others being convicted.
"If you know that a practice is actually illegal, you can't immunize yourself" with a pledge, said Mr Hoofnagle. "There's a strong principle in US law of being responsible for the actions of your agents."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003