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My FBI File

 I was a bit surprised to learn last month that I have an FBI file. You have one, too.

The FBI spent $8 million last year with a company called ChoicePoint Inc. to buy dossiers on almost all adults who live in the United States. ChoicePoint, formerly a part of credit-reporting giant Equifax, is a publicly-held database firm with a market value of $2.25 billion, based in Alpharetta, Ga.

Using our Social Security numbers as a key personal identifier, ChoicePoint compiles dossiers on citizens from credit reports, and from public records such as court files, property tax documents, business incorporations, and professional license applications. ChoicePoint bundles the information and resells it to business and government clients. The FBI is apparently such a good customer that they get their own website to access the database.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the FBI’s use of this database on April 13. After reading the article, I e-mailed ChoicePoint CEO Derek Smith asking to see the dossiers on my family. A couple weeks later, after paying $20 apiece for the privilege, I received by mail a packet of more than 60 pages of computer print-outs from ChoicePoint containing information about myself and my wife.

Sixty pages seemed like a lot of information for one family. Looking through the first few pages of my dossier I saw that my credit card companies gave ChoicePoint my current address, plus my previous two addresses. My town gave them information about my house: when I bought it, how much I paid for it, and my property taxes. They even had the square footage for the house, which I've been curious to know ever since we moved in. Since my wife and I have the same phone number in the White Pages, ChoicePoint correctly deduced that she and I are related.

The deeper I dove into my dossier, however, the weirder things got. A lot of misleading information is included, perhaps because my name is a common one. ChoicePoint noted, for example, that I might have been previously married to some lady named Mary, but that I had died in 1976. Yikes! They did a search of Texas criminal records and found nothing under my name. However, the report suggested a further search under names such as "Ricky Smith" and "Rickie Smith" because there were some bad guys in jail under these names. ChoicePoint touted me as a real estate agent in my town. They also thought I might be involved in more than 30 small businesses around the country simply because the name “Richard Smith” appears as a company officer.

On my wife's dossier I learned with amazement that she had a son named "Kyle" three years before we met. It was unclear from the report how ChoicePoint made this connection and where Kyle is today. Pretty funny how they missed our two real daughters. They did list one of my daughters as a neighbor, but she actually hasn't lived at home for the last eight years since she went away to college.

Memo to the FBI: The ChoicePoint dossier for my household contains more misinformation than correct information. I'm not sure how someone looking over these reports could use them in any meaningful way without already knowing a good deal about myself and my wife.

After seeing these reports, I wanted to opt-out. Guess what? Just as with credit reporting agencies, you can’t. They choose to have a relationship with you, but you have no choice in your relationship with them. In my original e-mail message to the ChoicePoint CEO, I asked about opting out. I got a nice letter back from the ChoicePoint chief privacy officer saying "No.” Here was the reason given:

"Our individual reference products are used by legitimate businesses and government agencies to identify and locate individuals to make society a safer place, including detecting and preventing fraud, locating and apprehending fugitives, and finding missing children and reuniting them with their families. Given these uses and the adverse effect opt-out would have on our ability to provide quality information for these decisions that matter, I am unable to remove your information from these products."

Hmmm. My next level of concern is about how the misinformation in these files could be used against me. Besides providing information to the FBI, ChoicePoint helps companies conduct employee background checks, fraud investigations, and review insurance applications. I don't want to be hassled simply because a stranger who is listed on my dossier does something wrong. I'm also wondering whether information about me is mistakenly on the dossiers of people with a similar name.

Using mistaken information can have ugly consequences. This happened last year when ChoicePoint provided criminal history information to the state of Florida. In a lawsuit filed in January, the NAACP alleges that thousands of legal voters were mistakenly taken off the rolls in Florida prior to November's disputed presidential election. ChoicePoint claims that Florida county election officials failed to properly correlate ChoicePoint information with voter eligibility.

Given ChoicePoint's stated desire to deliver quality information to businesses and government agencies, I've sent them marked up copies of the dossiers on my family so that they can correct their databases. If you want to see your own FBI/ChoicePoint dossier, you can order it for $20 through the CDB InfoTek (now owned by ChoicePoint) website linked below.

Richard M. Smith is the chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation. Send him email at rms@privacyfoundation.org

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