U.S. Data-Mining of Latin American Citizens

Last April, we wrote about Choice Point, a company hired by the U.S. to collect data on hundreds of millions of citizens of Latin American countries.

During the past 18 months, the U.S. government has bought access to data on hundreds of millions of residents of 10 Latin American countries --apparently without their consent or knowledge --allowing myriad federal agencies to track foreigners entering and living in the United States.

A suburban Atlanta company, ChoicePoint Inc., collects the information abroad and sells it to U.S. government officials in three dozen agencies, including immigration investigators who've used it to arrest illegal immigrants.

The Miami Herald has new details and says the Governments of these countries are not happy with the plan and have opened investigations into the practice:

Prosecutors in Nicaragua, Mexico and elsewhere across Latin America have opened investigations into the business of private information mining after discovering that the U.S. Justice Department hired a Georgia company [Choice Point] to collect personal information on up to 300 million people throughout the region without their knowledge.

....The project is part of the U.S. government's attempt to expand its intelligence sources in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. officials say the data are being used by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies to verify the identities of foreign-born criminal suspects, illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists.

South of the border, the Justice Department project has stirred concerns about the U.S. acting as "Big Brother" and interfering in the affairs of countries that pose little threat. Officials in Nicaragua worry it could fuel a black market in private information in nations already plagued by corruption and lacking official oversight to prevent abuses.

It's espionage," said Alejandro Bendana, director of the Institute of International Studies in Managua. "The U.S. is going to know more about the Nicaraguan people than the Nicaraguan government. They can say, 'Here is a list of Nicaraguan undesirables. Keep them under control,' or they will say to the airlines, 'Don't let them onboard.'"

This is scary stuff. Choice Point also operates in the U.S.

In late 2001, the Justice Department signed the first of several contracts with ChoicePoint, a company that collects biographical information and sells it to employers and insurance companies for resume checking and identity verification. Other clients are media organizations, including the Chicago Tribune.

Back to the Latin American contract:

The contract called for personal information on citizens of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela, ChoicePoint officials said. The company has since ceased collecting data in Argentina and Costa Rica.

U.S. officials say the purpose of the contract was national security. They contend that the information will bring quicker identity verification, such as when officials are trying to uncover a smuggler among a group of illegal immigrants, as well as enhance their ability to detect suspicious patterns of behavior that could lead to the discovery of terrorist cells.

Remember the name. Choice Point. We think we'll be hearing more about them.

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