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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

FEMA and ChoicePoint Deserve Each Other, but We Don't Deserve Either

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), poor information technology and lack of management controls is responsible for as much as $1.4 billion fraudulently paid out in hurricane relief funds by FEMA. Lack of management is FEMA’s specialty, but not securing the technology to access consumers’ personal data takes their incompetence to yet another level since every other governmental agency does it regularly. FBI, Homeland Security, Pentagon, NSA, Justice Department…the White House.

Michael Arnone writes in Federal Computer Week, that the GAO uncovered this figure through the same technology that FEMA should have used to catch the crooks: data mining and database matching techniques. His article, “FEMA pledges better disaster relief fund payouts,” quotes the GAO as saying that around 16 percent of the disaster assistance was questionable. Some of the millions of dollars even went to federal and state prison inmates.

So far nothing unexpected. However, then Arnone drops the bombshell. FEMA has hired data broker ChoicePoint to verify identities, using Social Security numbers for those applying for assistance. That’s the same ChoicePoint that led the charge in February of 2005, with 145,000 personal records stolen by ID thieves, an incident that was revealed only because of a new California law on identity theft.

Not satisfied with the original version, ChoicePoint goes for two sequels, one totaling 9,900 names and private information stolen September of 2005, another 17,000, November of the same year. That’s almost 172 thousand consumers who have had to run for cover, and sweat out the threat that their identities could be taken from them at any time. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, or even a year or two from now.

By the way, the Federal Trade commission reports that there have already been at least 800 cases of ID theft resulting from the ChoicePoint breaches.

According to an Information Week article by Thomas Claburn, titled “The Federal Information Tax,” the government has become one of ChoicePoint’s best customers. Based on the Privacy Act of 1974, there are major questions regarding what the feds can ask for from these data brokers, and also what private information they are allowed to maintain on American consumers.

This fact notwithstanding, the question is, after three data breaches by ChoicePoint, are they qualified to provide personal data on consumers for businesses or government? Privacy Activism, a non-profit organization reporting on privacy issues, isn’t sure. In an article, “Privacy Activism study finds new problems for ChoicePoint, Acxiom,”they found a majority of participants found errors in the most basic of biographical information: name, Social Security number, address, and telephone number.

But the shock of the day was that the background check reports (your private information) provided by ChoicePoint were inaccurate 73 percent of the time. By the way, the same Acxiom figure was 67 percent.

Are you ready to see the light and demand federal legislation to give you control over your name and personal data, and, pay you when it is sold? Let me hear from you.

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