Uh, Do You Think They’ll Suspect Something If We Call It “Big Brother”?

The Pentagon’s TIA (Total Information Awareness) super-secret spy-on-Americans program headed by John Poindexter of Iran-Contra infamy was a big deal a few years ago – until Congress killed it. Turned out Americans didn’t like the idea of their own government spying on them without cause, and even 9/11 didn’t change their minds.

Robert O’Harrow Jr of the Washington Post has written an interesting book postulating that TIA would have probably succeeded if they hadn’t chosen such lousy names like “Total Information Awareness” and a “creepy all-seeing eye for a logo”.

One of the things O’Harrow illustrates is the set of shadowy business alliances TIA formed with personal data reporting companies such as Acxiom, ChoicePoint and Seisint. While O’Harrow focusses on how this information could be misused, his implicit assumption is that this information is correct but private.

But the likelihood of the information being accurate and hence actionable is not very high – certainly not high enough to deny someone a home or a job without the right of appeal and seeing the evidence. These reporting agencies do not verify information submitted, as anyone who has had bad data on their credit report can attest. However, there is no penalty for these companies supplying inaccurate information, even if such false information results in a loss of a job, rejection for credit, or even false arrest!

Americans are extremely ignorant of how the nexus of information is woven throughout their lives and caps how far they can go (where you can live, where you can work, what school your kids can atttend, …), but one thing I hear consistently from people is how astonished they are when they discover they are a victim of false information supplied by a company that “appears” of veracity. Even correcting an error on a simple credit report is the responsibility of the consumer – even if they have had no notice that such information exists, because these companies are under no obligation to provide it (except in certain states where yearly “free credit reports” are mandatory, and even then the consumer must request one). Also, credit reports are only one piece of the puzzle – employers, colleges and universities, government agencies, and financial agencies increasingly rely on these companies to make / break decisions.

I hope more people will start to educate themselves on this subject. It’s a lot harder to do so after you are blackballed.

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