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U.S. data mining riles Latin America

By HUGH DELLIOS

10/12/03: Chicago Tribune: MANAGUA, Nicaragua - For a people who have grappled with American meddling for more than a century, Nicaraguans were surprised to find that Uncle Sam's long reach may now extend right into their private lives.

The latest intrusion was by information companies rooting out identity documents, driver's license numbers, phone records and other personal data, all of which were made available to the U.S. government for screening.

Prosecutors in Nicaragua, Mexico and elsewhere across Latin America have opened investigations into the business of private information mining after discovering that the U.S. Justice Department hired a Georgia company to collect personal information on up to 300 million people throughout the region without their knowledge.

The company, ChoicePoint Inc., in turn hired local subcontractors to dig out the information. Company officials said they only collect data from the public realm and never deal in sensitive information such as bank records. But investigators across the region want to know who is collecting what information and how it might be used.

The project is part of the U.S. government's attempt to expand its intelligence sources in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. officials say the data are being used by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to verify the identities of foreign-born criminal suspects, illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists.

Yet such data-digging has rung alarm bells for U.S. privacy advocates already critical of Washington's efforts to collect information on American citizens under such programs as the Defense Department's Terrorism Information Awareness project.

That project, run by 1980s Iran-contra figure John Poindexter until his resignation in August, is being curtailed after drawing stiff condemnation from civil libertarians and members of Congress.

South of the border, the Justice Department project has stirred concerns about the U.S. acting as "Big Brother" and interfering in the affairs of countries that pose little threat. Officials in Nicaragua worry it could fuel a black market in private information in nations already plagued by corruption and lacking official oversight to prevent abuses.

"It was a big surprise, because this information cannot be in the hands of a private company," said Maria del Carmen Solorzano, the Nicaraguan prosecutor investigating the information collecting. "They could use this information for all kinds of different ends, even those we can't imagine."

Several countries, including Nicaragua, Colombia, Costa Rica and El Salvador, are trying to change their laws to better protect their citizens from what is being labeled as "information trafficking."

News of the project came at a sensitive time, during the war in Iraq, which was extremely unpopular across a region well-acquainted with U.S. intervention.

"It's espionage," said Alejandro Bendana, director of the Institute of International Studies in Managua. "The U.S. is going to know more about the Nicaraguan people than the Nicaraguan government. They can say, 'Here is a list of Nicaraguan undesirables. Keep them under control,' or they will say to the airlines, 'Don't let them onboard.'"

In late 2001, the Justice Department signed the first of several contracts with ChoicePoint, a company that collects biographical information and sells it to employers and insurance companies for resume checking and identity verification. Other clients are media organizations, including the Chicago Tribune.

The contract called for personal information on citizens of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela, ChoicePoint officials said. The company has since ceased collecting data in Argentina and Costa Rica.

U.S. officials say the purpose of the contract was national security. They contend that the information will bring quicker identity verification, such as when officials are trying to uncover a smuggler among a group of illegal immigrants, as well as enhance their ability to detect suspicious patterns of behavior that could lead to the discovery of terrorist cells.

ChoicePoint officials say all the information comes from public sources, such as driver's license lists, civil registries and telephone records. The U.S. government doesn't have open access to the data, they say, but must apply to see the information only when attempting to verify the identity of someone under suspicion.

The company says it makes its local subcontractors certify in writing that the information they pass along was obtained legally.

"There has never been any allegation anywhere that ChoicePoint did anything untoward," said Chuck Jones, a spokesman for the company. "There have been lots of things reported in the press - that we had photographs and fingerprints and blood types - and none of that is true. It was names, addresses, phone numbers - things like that."

But the investigations in Latin America have raised questions about the methods used by at least one of ChoicePoint's subcontractors to obtain information.

Earlier this year, ChoicePoint destroyed part of its Mexico database after Mexican officials alleged that it included information from the government's national voting registry, which would be illegal.

According to Mexican officials and media reports, ChoicePoint purchased the information for $250,000 in 2001 from a consumer information company called Bases de Datos, which was marketing it as part of a database called Guide to Potential Sellers and Buyers in the Mexican Republic.

Bases de Datos said it bought the information from another company. Mexican investigators would like to question the alleged supplier from that second company, but he apparently has gone into hiding.

ChoicePoint officials say they have cooperated fully with Mexican authorities, including returning 10 disks with the voter information. They blamed the problems on the subcontractor for "falsely" certifying that the information was legally obtained.

"ChoicePoint acted in good faith," J. Michael de Janes, ChoicePoint's general counsel and chief privacy officer, said in a statement in June. "Unfortunately, our Mexican data supplier abused its position of trust and took advantage of the people of Mexico and ChoicePoint."

In response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stopped using ChoicePoint's data on Mexican citizens, a department spokesman said. "It was an extremely useful database, but it was (only) one of the tools we used," said Garrison Courtney, the spokesman. "We have a lot of other, different databases."

Meanwhile, Mexican prosecutors want proof - beyond a company news release - that ChoicePoint destroyed its original copy of the suspected voter files. The Mexicans sent a delegation to company offices in Alpharetta, Ga., to witness the erasing of the files, but the company first requested a statement from Mexico exonerating its employees of any wrongdoing.

The Mexicans refused, saying they couldn't make such a statement in the middle of their investigation.

"Because of the simple fact that (the list) has left the electoral arena and has been used in a commercial form, for other ends, there is a presumption that a crime has been committed," said Maria de los Angeles Fromow, Mexico's special prosecutor for electoral crimes.

The Nicaraguan investigation also has run into problems.

After the ChoicePoint project was made public in an Associated Press report, La Prensa newspaper accessed the Web site of Guatemala-based company Infornet. Among the data it found were the banking records of the Nicaraguan national police chief and personal information on the vice president, two former presidents and a judge.

Shortly afterward, police raided the Managua offices of Infornet and two other data-collection companies. But they have not been able to question the employees of Infornet because the employees left the country, prosecutors say.

Del Carmen, the prosecutor, said any government official who sells official data such as banking records to a private company could be subject to a criminal charge.

Police in Guatemala also raided Infornet's offices in that country after receiving complaints about invasion of privacy after the ChoicePoint contract became known. An Infornet spokeswoman denied any wrongdoing by the company.

Citing confidentiality agreements, ChoicePoint officials would not comment on whether Infornet was one of the company's subcontractors in Central America. And Jones, the spokesman, said ChoicePoint "does not have, has never had, nor would we want to have financial records on any Latin American citizens."

"We are obviously very concerned about this," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, which first uncovered the existence of the federal contract with ChoicePoint.

"They (U.S. officials) have been very aggressive, and at some level it's understandable. Unfortunately, I think too often recently the U.S. has jeopardized not only our privacy laws but also other countries'."

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