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The Company That Would Sell Your Soul to the Devil
Published on Friday, February 25, 2005 by the Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pa.)
The Company That Would Sell Your Soul to the Devil
by Tony Norman
 
Why am I not surprised that ChoicePoint, the consumer data-mining company that was recently conned into sharing 145,000 consumer credit profiles with identity thieves, is the same company that helped Florida "purge" its voter rolls of felons and other undesirable voters during the 2000 election?

When you're on such an undemocratic roll, why stop at helping to hijack an election in plain sight when you can earn millions selling the identities of every person gullible enough to have a credit history to shadowy front companies, organized crime syndicates and enterprising con artists?

And when not selling our hard-earned identities to felonious data brokers, why shouldn't ChoicePoint do the patriotic thing and sell the information -- much of which the government is restricted by law from harvesting for itself -- to the boys in Homeland Security as they go about assembling the ultimate domestic surveillance state?

What could be more American than invading the privacy of millions of people for fun and profit while continuing to evade government oversight with bribes in the form of generous campaign contributions? But it's not like the American Civil Liberties Union didn't warn us of this inevitable convergence of identity theft and ham-fisted Big Brother tactics at least a million times.

Last August, the ACLU released a report detailing how the government stands in line with other suspicious characters to buy information gleaned from most of us by so-called "data aggregators" like ChoicePoint. Every time you pull out your Giant Eagle Advantage card, a low-level bureaucrat in the belly of the data-mining beast knows about it and laughs.

It took the boys in Homeland Security a whole Orwellian minute to figure out that buying the information from a third party -- though contemptuous of the spirit of the law -- doesn't technically violate the Privacy Act of 1974.

That law forbids Uncle Sam from assembling dossiers on law-abiding Americans unless they're specifically targeted by federal investigators. Like low-rent identity thieves, the government can gather the information in bulk and sit on it until it is needed.

Corporate data-miners don't have to be nearly as circumspect about the information they gather, though. ChoicePoint makes no bones about the fact that we're just numbers to be bought, sold and traded at its discretion.

California is the only state in the union that requires data-mining companies to inform residents when their identities have been stolen. Last week, Eileen Goldberg, a California resident and the only hero in this drama as far as I'm concerned, sued ChoicePoint in Los Angeles Superior Court for fraud and negligence.

For being a dupe in an ongoing criminal conspiracy, ChoicePoint deserves to be snowed under with lawsuits. With 700 fraudulent cases out of 145,000 tied directly to its negligence so far, a class-action suit is all but inevitable.

With any luck, 49 other states will quickly adopt California's "breach law" and require data-mining companies to inform us whenever our identities have been compromised in their data banks.

In a just world, the practice of harvesting the financial minutiae of our lives should be a risky venture fraught with crushing liability. There's nothing more precious than our identities, but too many companies play with the raw data of our lives as if they were feudal lords and we, merely serfs.

Whenever I see a commercial featuring a straight-talking "thief" telling us that the only thing standing between us and identity theft is a shredder, I let out a hearty laugh.

Sure, I use a shredder religiously to slice and dice the credit card offers that pour in every day, but I know companies like ChoicePoint will sell my personal information to the next criminal that asks for it, anyway. And what isn't sold willingly will be hacked eventually.

Maybe we should allow them to tattoo our Social Security numbers on our foreheads and call it a day.

© 2005 Post-Gazette

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