(Crossposted at my very-new, and “not really presentable because I don’t know HTML and my 14 year old demands hard cash for helping” blog Political Sapphire and also at DailyKOS)

This is a small news item that seems to have been overlooked (if there was a diary on this I missed it and none came up during a search), no doubt because of Dubbya’s speech and the important decisions coming from the Supremes in the past week, but I think it’s still important.  It evokes, in my mind, a further consolidation of control within a centralized, federal government, over the one thing most Americans all agree should not without limits be accessible to the federal government – the personal, private details of our financial and other lives.

This week, the IRS confirmed that it had just awarded ChoicePoint Data Systems a 5 year, $20M contract to provide even more specialized data to the IRS for use in tax collections:

ChoicePoint, IRS’ New Global Partner in Tax Collections
But ….wait a minute: Is this the SAME ChoicePoint that was forced to admit the theft of personal data it maintained on more than 100,000 Californians, and ultimately hundreds of thousands more non-California, only because our demned librul Kerry-voting state passed a mandatory reporting law out here a couple of years back over fierce business opposition?

ChoicePoint, Caught with Its Pants Down

Hmm – I believe it is.

Isn’t this the same ChoicePoint that we found out last week had actually SOLD the personal data to a ring of identity thieves?

ChoicePoint: Preferred Supplier of ID Thieves Worldwide

Why I’ll be damned- it sure is.

And didn’t someone already discover earlier this year, much to our chagrin, that much of our personal tax return data is already less secure than we’d assumed, in large point because of a linkage between IRS data bases and ChoicePoint databases:

ChoicePoint, the IRS & You

ChoicePoint, the IRS & You Round II

Well, foo. I knew that name ChoicePoint sounded familiar.

If there is any universal rule of Big Business in America TM, it is this: incompetence truly is its own reward, particularly if you are a government contractor:

ChoicePoint Making Bank in 1Q, 2005

$20M Reward for Consistently High Quality – NOT – Services

Of course, ChoicePoint has managed over the years to get a dead lock on just about everything you could ever need to be evaluated for: your ability to rent an apartment, get auto insurance or even get a job:

ChoicePoint Knows All

If you want to know how wide ChoicePoint’s reach has become, take a gander at this person’s summary of what was in his ChoicePoint file:

Checking Out a ChoicePoint File

ChoicePoint might say that people like the gentleman who perused his file above writer above, and me, are being unfairly harsh and overly alarmist about what is clearly a “public good”.  In ChoicePoint’s own words:

“ChoicePoint helps businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations make better decisions through information and technology solutions. Each year, ChoicePoint helps more than seven million people get the jobs they deserve and more than 100 million people get fairly priced home and auto insurance. Small businesses can obtain affordable commercial insurance because of our products. Businesses grow revenue with our marketing services and cut costs through our authentication and anti-fraud tools. Government agencies use our data and technology to fulfill their missions in all parts of the world…” One thing is clear – ChoicePoint sees itself as the savior of all that is holy when it comes to saving business people from having to make their own, independent decisions.”

In other words: “Smarter Products, Safer World”

I can’t speak for you, but when I think of “Big Brother”, a single entity with this much detailed information about our individual lives readily comes to mind. Well, now that single entity is getting even more intertwined with our government’s operations than it already was. Indeed, government embedding now appears to be a primary ChoicePoint business strategy. That is definitely Not Good.  But I shouldn’t be alarmed.  Note the soothing language ChoicePoint uses to describe the results of its systematic data mining: seven million people getting “the jobs they deserved” and small business and individuals getting “fairly priced insurance” — all thanks to ChoicePoint’s never ending vigilance in aggregating your personal data (whether the data is actually correct or not) about each and every one of us.

And that’s why this tiny little IRS contract with the Feds (tiny compared to Halliburton, anyway) is nonetheless a Big Deal.  Remember that ChoicePoint claims that it has managed to aggregate data for damned near every adult in the United States. Now, this might not be so bad, except that ChoicePoint is also embroiled in lots of litigation because it has a couple of teensy problems: (a) getting shit wrong when it comes to aggregating its data on individuals and (b) maintaining extremely sloppy security controls over its data.  
ChoicePoint’s Perfect Data I
ChoicePoint’s Perfect Data II

The fully predictable result? Exponentially increasing numbers of people facing serious life problems because of a bogus ChoicePoint report being relied upon as gospel by its business and or governmental recipient (a reliance that is never attacked, especially when it’s in connection with credit and banking, because as we know, the computers used by our banks, our lenders, our landlords and especially our government, are NEVER wrong).  Even though the problems are now well known, we are still asked to believe that folks “getting the job they deserve” and receiving “fairly priced insurance” because of the private market’s reliance on ChoicePoint data outweighs the risk of harms that logically can flow from ChoicePoint’s fully-demonstrated incompetence in investigating, aggregating and reporting private personal data.

When you look at the impressive track record of data security failures and outright screw-ups that ChoicePoint has been responsible for over the years, its reassurances suddenly don’t seem all that believable.  And they shouldn’t be – because today, ChoicePoint data is increasingly used for just about everything.  It is not too hard to find evidence of this.  Look closely, and you will find increasing reliance by employers on ChoicePoint data for all of the following:

To screen job candidates:  ChoicePoint and HotJobs

To underwrite efforts to obtain insurance for claimless applicants: ChoicePoint and Your Insurance

or even

Deny apartment hunters a right to a roof over their heads: ChoicePoint and Your Apartment Search

The Feds have increasingly relied on ChoicePoint over the years. That reliance started with the FBI and now, as we can see, it has reached what is in my mind the most frightening federal agency of them all, in terms of its power to truly screw the financial survival of the average citizen with only a single mistake: the Internal Revenue Service.

It is bad enough that the IRS has always benefited from a little known, yet long-standing rule of law that most folks don’t even know about; specifically, if a government employee gives you advice, and that advice turns out to be wrong under the law, that advice is not binding on the government. But now, we are simultaneously increasing use by the government on aggregated data to “crack down” on “tax scofflaws” <sup>TM</sup&gt at the same time we are facing a soon to be decreased ability to sort tax problems on our own. This ChoicePoint announcement comes on the heels of the IRS’s new efforts to jettison its taxpayer assistance centers and cutting its public telephone hours – the most direct ways that individual taxpayers can try and cut through the IRS’s often insurmountable barriers to resolving tax problems, whether legitimate or completely bogus:

IRS Backing Away from The Public

(68 out of 400 centers to close; a 15% cut in offices; and closure of 3 primary call centers)

There have been many folks who have written about the question of personal privacy lately.  Most seem to have focused on the easy-outrage things like government access to medical records relating to reproductive rights and the PATRIOT Act.  Each is indeed a deeply troubling aspect of the privacy problem rapidly developing in our supposedly liberated, free country since 2000.  IME, an equally troubling, quite dangerous invasion is represented by the quiet, yet systematically increasing, data aggregation and consolidation about individual at the federal and state level.  It has been done so quietly, and sold to us so effectively as the way “efficiency” for us all, that nobody “political” seems to be all that fussed about it.  

Most folks, even those who do not trust King George<sup>TM</sup&gt any farther than they can throw him, still tend to scoff when folks raise the spectre of the government’s ability to control our lives individually becoming increasingly consolidated. Yet the foundational pillars of just such a system are increasingly in place, and it is only looking at the quiet adoption of many laws and regulations that one can get a picture of the whole, and think about the possibilities. We have already all been reduced to numbers, rather than people, through the misuse in violation of statute, of the social security number as a personal identifier. That personal identifier became the backbone for implementation of personal profiling through scoring (whether it’s FICO scoring, insurance underwriting scoring, or even scoring when it comes to determining who will get access to life-changing higher education, and who will not). But previously, that scoring was largely driven by the private sector, whose primary concern is and remains money and financial risk. It therefore seemed far less threatening to the right of privacy. Now, however, it seems clear that the federal government itself is shifting to methods of interacting with us as citizens that are grounded in the concept that it is alright to use data about each one of us for whatever purpose the government sees fit, however inaccurate that data might be, with the burden firmly kept on the individual, rather than the state, to ensure the accuracy of that data or suffer the consequences if they don’t.

It’s not that much of a theoretical leap from where things stand today to far more insidious uses of personal data by the government itself – most notably, the use of data aggregation and profiling to determine who has access to privileges, or, more dangerously, who should be targeted individually for adverse consequences. Indeed, several books have as central themes the concept of a Big Brother government with so much access to and control over critical about individuals that a person can no longer undertake anything in day to day life without the federal government not only knowing about it, but having the power to stop or change it.

One of the most effective thematic considerations of this is in an environmental novel called Nature’s End written by James Kunetka and Whitley Strieber some 20 years ago. In that novel, a political madman hiding behind his role as a saintly religious leader a la Ghandi has persuaded most governments of the world, through their electorates, (including ours) that the only solution left to save humanity in the face of massive environmental collapse is a computer based random-selection suicide pact that will kill 1/3 of all those human beings still alive. This is an old book, which horrified me at the time for both the environmental and political issues – and I can’t say that it is necessarily the best writing I’ve ever read either, despite its compelling themes. But Nature’s End actually horrifies me MORE now than it did then, not just because of the increasingly-possible environmental collapses described, much like in Silent Spring. My current horror in reading and thinking about this novel, which I recommend despite its literary flaws, is in thinking about the deliberate access to and manipulation of human lives made possible only because of the limitless reach of computer based information about people and the intertwining of that information with the actual ability to do day to day live. For example, the novel’s hero – a journalist called a “convictor” because his job is to use computerized algorithms to parse and analyze human speech patterns in connection with available data to “get behind” and “expose” the hidden truth behind the public façade shown by public leaders, including in this book the publicly-saintly Gupta Singh who advocates mass suicide and systematically takes control of the convictor’s entire life to try to destroy him once he begins “convicting” Singh.. In the novel, his centralized life data is the hero’s only means to access everything from his money to the medical treatments he must have to stave off the aging process – and it is willfully used by his political enemy to create a situation where he cannot really run, he cannot really hide, and he cannot really survive so long as he pursues a political agenda against the genocide.

I will not even discuss in detail the central role that centralized computer access to individual data and lives played in another book discussed often today as we descend into a quasi-theocracy: The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet everyone who has read it is well aware of precisely how the theocratic state was able to take instantly and simultaneously disempower and take control of the lives of every woman in America (which promptly, after Congress was murdered, became known as the Republic of Gilead).

These types of things are what keep me up at night, sometimes, even as occasionally I bitch-slap myself and say that I’ve gone truly over into TinFoil Hat Land by such worries. But I’m not the only one who thinks about this type of thing:

When You Become the Commodity

There are actually federal government agencies with slightly more power over the individual than the Internal Revenue Service. However, I’d wager that only the IRS, in large part because of its nightmarish at the extreme but extraordinary day-to-day powers of immediate advance property and income seizure subject only to court-based adjudication that can take years to accomplish (if you can afford it, and most of us cannot) strikes terror in the hearts of most people, Democrats and Republicans alike. And I admit that the fact that Bush’s IRS is increasing its reliance on ChoicePoint – a proven winner when it comes to fucking people’s personal information up – for its collections activity scares the crap out of me, when I look at it in the larger picture of government consolidation of information about each one of us – a consolidation we appear powerless to stop at this point.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just worrying for nothing.

If you think you can rely on the existing rubric of federal and state laws to protect you from errors and harm, I can say with certainty, as an attorney who sees pro bono at least 1 person every 2 weeks whose identity has now been stolen: you can’t. Take a good look at some of these rather frightening examples:

Read `Em and Weep Stories

What can you do? Well, for starters, take the time to know exactly what is out there about you, and make sure it is correct. It’s not just something to do “when you have time”. It’s something to do NOW, if you haven’t already. Then, remain vigilant. And talk about this problem, to your neighbors. We may all be Red Staters and Blue Staters, but IME the notion of government “knowing too much” about us is something that everyone but the most rabid wingnut views can get fired up about. This is a great organization whose page everyone should diary.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

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