FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Scarlet Letter Society

Actionable intelligence. That's what giant information broker ChoicePoint calls the service it offers. The company, currently valued at $4.1 billion, aggregates public records, criminal histories and other information of interest about individuals. Its clients include potential employers and, since 2001, the US Department of Justice.

Investigative reporter Robert O'Harrow recently profiled ChoicePoint for the Washington Post. There's nothing illegal about what ChoicePoint does, and the argument can be made that "actionable intelligence" is a necessary tool for national security. But the availability of so much information on so many individuals is fraught with unintended consequences, especially if it is abused, misrepresented or simply wrong. Anyone with even the smallest blemish on their record could pay for it years, even decades later. Mistakes could be difficult if not impossible to correct. With identity theft rampant, what is the potential for "identity sabotage" and blackmail? Anyone running for public office or seeking a job with high-security clearance would have to be prepared to explain minor transgressions from their youth. Indeed, as privacy advocate Charles Hoofnagle calls it, we appear to be seeing the dawn of a "Scarlet Letter society."

Information technology allows us to collect massive anounts of personal data, yet it doesn't give us an ethical framework for managing it. Firms such as ChoicePoint claim they have strict standards controlling how their information is to be used, but these can be violated by someone motivated and diabolical enough. Defending one's privacy in the face of such massive databases will be a major challenge over the next several years.

Or, perhaps Sun CEO Scott McNealy was more right than even he realized when he famously stated in 1999: "You have zero privacy. Get over it!"

Source: MSNBC.com