Las Americas

Big Brother's Crossover Schemes


Since the terror attacks on New York and Washington 20 months ago, the U.S. government, in its zeal to globalize snooping on its own people, has bought and bribed access to the personal records of more than 300 million Latin Americans, including the citizens of its two most populous nations, Brazil and Mexico, in addition to Argentina, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

Under an agreement signed in September 2001 with the U.S. Justice Department, ChoicePoint, an Atlanta information mogul (nearly a billion in earnings last year) with meaningful ties to Bush family fortunes, provides the Department with dubiously acquired access to updated Mexican voter registration lists containing the names, addresses, birthplaces and birth dates of 65,000,000 citizens, Mexico City drivers’ license records dating back to 1997 and actualized each month, and all automobile registration data collected in the capital during that same period.

Whereas in the United States, such public records are fair game for direct mail advertisers, telemarketers, political candidates, and other annoying hucksters, in Mexico they are closely guarded and their sale to ChoicePoint, and ultimately the U.S. government, has raised issues of national security and sovereignty. An investigation into the illegal sale of this sensitive information has been ordered by Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha.

The scandal is enhanced by ChoicePoint’s refusal to divulge from whom or how it obtained the data- bases, citing confidentiality clauses in the purchase contracts. But the brouhaha goes far beyond junk mail and nuisance phone calls. Voter registration and drivers’ license databases are a prime law enforcement tool to track suspects and fugitives. ChoicePoint’s leasing of access to this information to the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (now an asset of the Department of Homeland Security) Quick Response Team has more than a few Mexicans worried that Big Brother is beaming in from Washington.

The prospect of the Migra (U.S. Border Patrol) or its bounty hunters knocking on one’s door in Mexico City looking for a Los Angeles bail skip or New York parking scofflaw is no longer just a paranoid’s vision. Neither is a phone tap ordered by the U.S. Homeland Security Department under powers amplified by the USA Patriot Act. Or a request from the FBI inviting the occupant to report suspicious neighbors to Bush’s Terrorist Information Program (TIPS). In the new New World Order, borders no longer guarantee privacy.

With the blessing of the International Association of Police Chiefs and a “special” relationship with the FBI for which it maintains a data hotline, ChoicePoint has become the largest purveyor of public records to U.S. law enforcement and other investigative agencies, boasting that it can supply “10,000,000,000 records on individuals and companies.”

“Whether you are looking for a fugitive or tracking their assets, we provide mission-critical information with a flick of the finger,” the ChoicePoint web page brags. “We get you the info you need now.” (The slogan is trademarked.)

In addition to its law enforcement clientele, ChoicePoint is a leader in providing data for employee screening and claims to service the majority of Fortune magazine’s top thousand U.S. corporations. The Atlanta information powerhouse is a leading tenant screener for landlord associations. It’s also building a DNA database to identify victims of mass disasters like the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and is now a big player in the drug testing field, having bought major data troves from the Pinkerton Corporation, a legendary name in Finkdom, and one of 30 data-base enterprises ChoicePoint snorkeled up last year.

ChoicePoint’s accelerated growth from a spin-off of a credit check agency in 1997 into an info industry giant in just six years’ time closely parallels its ties with the presidency of George Walker Bush. Indeed, the corporation has been a direct beneficiary of the Bush presidency’s two most traumatic moments—the 2000 election and the 9/11 attacks.

In 1999, First Sibling Jeb Bush and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris contracted ($3.8 million) ChoicePoint subsidiary Database Technologies, or DBT, Inc. to tidy up the state’s voter registration lists by eliminating allegedly ineligible electors—57,600 voters, most of them black and Latino, were disappeared in the process, a ploy that insured Jeb’s brother the presidency.

According to documentation unearthed by the watchdog Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), ChoicePoint representatives were on the scene at the World Trade Center tragedy in Guinness-Book-of-Records-ambulance-chasing time—on September 12 the company won contracts to match victims with its growing DNA data bank.

Two weeks after the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history, ChoicePoint signed a $67 million contract (another $11 million would be attached later) to provide U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft with the personal records of hundreds of millions of Latin Americans, all presumably potential terrorist suspects.

As further reward for its assistance in assuring Bush’s victory in Florida, ChoicePoint—whose logo is a U.S. flag unfurling against the Capitol, perhaps to celebrate its compulsive gorging at the public trough—has been awarded juicy Homeland Security contracts. “ChoicePoint’s Homeland Security business is blossoming, bringing in over a million a month,” the Atlanta Business Chronicle recently reported.

The company now contracts access to data on all airport personnel to the brand-new Transportation Security Administration and is designing a “trusted” passenger data- base to speed traffic through terminals.

ChoicePoint proudly advertises its participation in the War on Terrorism on its flag-besotted web page, claims to have helped bring accused Washington sniper John Muhammad to justice, and makes no bones about its support for Bush’s war on Iraq: “We salute the brave men and women of the coalition armed forces.”

One of the six largest information brokers in the United States, ChoicePoint and its associates have made out like bandits since Congress privatized such information gathering. (Privacy laws enacted in the 1970s as a backlash to revelations that the Nixon administration was compiling extensive “information profiles” on random U.S. citizens, forced the government to turn to the private sector to maintain and expand such darkness.)

The vehicle registration lists, which indicate motor serial numbers, will be helpful to ChoicePoint’s auto insurance clients, its most profitable (47-percent margin) business. The data is thought to have been stolen from the now-defunct National Automobile Registry (RENAVE) whose director, Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, proved to be an Argentine war criminal. Cavallo learned the tricks of the document stealing trade after confiscating the property of suspected leftists held at a Buenos Aires Naval training school where 5,000 are thought to have been tortured and killed by the Argentine military.

ChoicePoint’s ease in obtaining sensitive Mexican public records has occasioned a flurry of fingerpointing here. Four thousand underpaid IFE officials in 32 states had access to the voter registration lists, which were contained on a series of easily-copied CDs. In addition, the political parties, whose veniality is legendary, all had access to the disks. In fact, the Mexico City drivers’ license data dates back to 1997 when the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution took control of the capital. The updating of the data on a monthly and yearly basis suggests an ongoing conspiracy.

The widening scandal is doing serious damage to Fox’s hopes for a credible mid-term election on July 6. The electoral process itself has been badly bruised by a pair of campaign funding scandals involving hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit contributions to the two major parties. Fox’s failure to deliver promised reforms has further soured voters on the electoral process and a light turnout is projected. The sale of the voter registration lists to Washington will only reinforce cynicism.

What is to be done? National Autonomous University law professor Jorge Camil suggests a class action law suit by 65 million affected Mexicans to halt distribution of the lists. “But the U.S. courts do not listen to Mexico,” he rues.

Author-poet-periodista and human shield John Ross sends frequent dispatches from Mexico City.