Privacy in Peril

Who's Minding the Store?

Businesses of almost any type used to be able to buy information from ChoicePoint for ID validation, fraud detection, debt collection, legal investigation, and credentialing. But because of the fraudulent purchases, ChoicePoint says it has stopped selling personally identifiable information--your name, address, Social Security number, and the like--to many customers. Nevertheless, it continues to sell that data to the insurance industry, employers, landlords, certain large corporate customers, and law enforcement agencies. So it still maintains vast troves of sensitive personal information that ID thieves are extremely eager to obtain.

ChoicePoint's chief marketing officer, James Lee, says that since the company's unwitting sale of data to criminals, it has implemented new user-access, password, and account deactivation requirements; strengthened its credentialing procedures; and recredentialed broad segments of its customer base. In addition, it no longer permits Internet access from non-U.S. countries. Other information brokers report their own upgrades in security.

"We don't have four or five information brokers in the united states; there are thousands of them. " --Consumer advocate Linda Foley of the identity theft resource center
Photograph: James Aronovsky
"There's a problem, however," asserts Linda Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a consumer advocacy site. "We don't have four or five data brokers in the United States; there are thousands of them." And just because ChoicePoint says it's beefing up security and being more selective about customers doesn't mean that all of the companies that maintain and have access to personal information databases are improving their security and screening, too.

Security consultant Charles Cresson Wood thinks that the companies purchasing information from brokers need to be held just as responsible for data security. "What happens to the information once it's in the hands of a customer?" he asks. "Are they required to destroy the info, return it, and make a statement that they will use it only for certain purposes?"

A LexisNexis representative says that the broker reviews customers' business licenses and other credentials, and that it checks for forged or tampered application documents. ChoicePoint's contracts, according to Lee, include specific requirements for information use and authorize the company to check up on that use.

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