No Place to Hide
Robert O’Harrow Jr.
For almost as long as computers have been around, privacy advocates have decried how corporations and governments could use them to invade our privacy. Robert O’Harrow Jr.’s No Place to Hide is the latest such treatise. O’Harrow’s take on the genre, usually dour in outlook but short on details, has a genuinely fresh wrinkle, though. He reports on the increasing interest law-enforcement agencies are taking in the consumer profile databases maintained by companies such as ChoicePoint.
In the days following Sept. 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft and lawmakers felt thwarted in their attempts to give federal law-enforcement agencies the full surveillance laws needed to prevent future attacks, thanks, at least in part, to pesky civil-rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. Since then, federal and local law-enforcement agencies have been investigating how the commercial sector could fill the gaps between the government’s own criminal records. In 2003, when the serial sniper was loose in the Washington area, data-aggregation company Seisint was able to pick out a few probable suspects among the 21,000 candidates, using demographic information the police themselves lacked. Trouble is, as O’Harrow points out, by using corporate records, law-enforcement agencies skirt the public scrutiny that would accompany a government-led attempt to collect personal information. With ChoicePoint assigning every U.S. citizen an identity number anyway—in order to organize the 17 billion records it has on us—why would the government need to create a national identity card?
O’Harrow writes wooden prose, stiff even for a newspaperman (he’s a Washington Post reporter). But more bothersome is his overreliance on promotional material, such as press releases that describe what a company’s product could do. Finally, O’Harrow does not connect all his dots. Because the Secret Service gave $1.5 million in research money to company called Image Data does not necessarily mean the Secret Service actually uses the company’s services yet. More reporting awaits. Clearly, O’Harrow tracks these companies closely. If they screw up, he’ll be on the case. In the meantime, No Place to Hide serves as a primer on electronic-record privacy issues.