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Why Choicepoint Resonates

It’s now a full month since Bob Sullivan of MSNBC broke the Choicepoint story. I’d like to think back, and ask, why does this story have legs? Why are reporters still covering it?

There are a couple of important trends which combine to make this a perfect storm, attractive to editors and readers. (It’s useful to understand that editors like to run stories on things their readers are familiar with. If a US paper wants to do a story on the impact of Everest climbers on Nepal, they have to devote a lot of effort to Nepal pre-Everst climbers, because Americans don’t know about Nepal.)

The Choicepoint story ties into other stories and themes in a number of important ways. First is the corporate malfeasance story. We have Bernie Ebbers, Richard Scrushy, and Dennis Kozlowski on trial. We have Martha Stewart being released from jail. So no one needs a primer on corporate malfeasance. We have concerns about privacy, and our lives being out of control. We have Congressional hearings going on. Clearly, this is important!

Incidentally, it means that Choicepoint needs to take dramatic action if they’d like to have any influence on the stories. Because a story that leads “Arrogant CEO ____ sells stock as the company he built stumbles” is almost pre-written for the reporter. The CEO who’s taking home more money this year than Joe Reader will make in his lifetime is a natural villain. Thus, these stories are, in a way, only incidentally about Choicepoint. They need to change that if they’d like to influence what happens to their company. Because while the stories may be incidental, the new laws won’t be.

The apparent insider trading aspect of the story isn’t the only bit of corporate arrogance here. There’s the partial disclosures, the claims that this only hurt Californians. There’s the claim that this hadn’t happened before. There’s the claim that Choicepoint is a victim, too. All of this arrogance combines to make a great many people want to throw bricks.

The story is about privacy concerns, but its not only people compiling data in a way that Americans are deeply ambivalent about, or the right to be left alone. It’s about our ability to control our own lives. It’s about trying to get a mortgage, only to discover that someone in Topeka skipped out on an apartment in your name. It’s about a minister being arrested at a routine traffic stop for drug dealing warrants in New Jersey. It’s about a black grandmother being refused the right to get onto an airplane because of a white skinhead who used a name that sounds like hers. He was on the FBI’s most wanted list, now he’s in prison, and she’s still suffering. These database companies are profiting deeply while being very cavalier about data quality, and that directly affects our lives, liberties, and pursuit of happiness. All so Derek Smith can sell $13.6 million dollars of stock?

Then there are issues of fairness. Americans love thinking we have an unfair advantage, but we hate being on the flip side of that. And we were all treated to the experience of being on the waiting list. Why are Californians special here? Was I one of the 110,000? Our attorneys general had to rip into Choicepoint for us to find out. And those who did find out now face “a lifetime of vigilance” because of Choicepoint. “Who? Choicepoint.” There’s a deep irony in that no one had ever heard of Choicepoint before this, and that irony drives the story. Choicepoint had lots of privacy, while invading yours. This fundamental unfairness prompts lots of people to sputtering anger.

Speaking of sputtering anger, cleansing the Florida voting rolls of Democrats doesn’t help. If a reporter doesn’t have enough to talk about, they’ll always have Florida to fill out 850 words. Voting is a big concern for the folks in Congress, which leads us to our final point.

Congressional hearings are rare events. Its not that Congress doesn’t hold hearings every day of the week. They do. But there are lots more issues with angry people calling their Congressman than there are days of the week. We all understand that a Congressman’s time is valuable, and they spend it on issues that are broad and important to their constituents. Most stories that a reporter covers don’t have multiple hearings planned. There’s a real feeling that treating Californians differently isn’t what this country is about. And thus, the final reason that the story has legs is that there’s real anger at Choicepoint, Seisent (Lexis Nexis) and the rest of the industry. It’s not going to go away quickly.

6 comments on "Why Choicepoint Resonates"

  • Axinar says:

    Oh … and check this out …
    Some companies will refuse to consider you for a job if you refuse to submit to a credit check AT SOME UNKNOWN POINT IN THE FUTURE.
    Actually I’m almost glad all these central databases are getting compromised. Maybe people will have to start TALKING to people again IN PERSON instead of thinking they can predict what people are going to do to the last minute by computer algorithms.

  • It resonates with me because my own South Carolina state government sold the bastards my drivers license information, including the crappy photo.
    ChoicePoint: The real problem isn’t their security.
    Besides, I hate all entities that make it their business to gather personal information on me. Why me, anyways? I’m just a boring citizen. Grrr…

  • Axinar says:

    Actually the whole sordid situation is a little complicated.
    First … is it reasonable for an employer to know whether or not a potential employee has a history of violence or theft? Well, probably. And with our liability situation the way it is, generally any company with deep pockets is virtually REQUIRED to run background checks because if an employee “goes postal” and discovery reveals that person has a previous background of violence that the company could have found out but didn’t, that company can be sued out of existence.
    So the situation developed that instead of spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars to search thousands of county courthouses, companies emerged to attempt to compile all this information in one place.
    Unfortunately, in a debt-based economy, identifying information is more valuable than gold, and putting all that information in one place without Fort Knox-style security is just begging for that information to be compromised.
    The only difference is — if someone knocked over Ft. Knox of course the gold, even the stolen gold, would still have value. You steal enough identifying information and that information becomes utterly worthless. If your economy is, in fact, based upon that information, your economy collapses.

    ChoicePoint: The real problem isn’t their security.
    The SPAM-filter refuses to allow me to list that link even in plain text (which has be extremely irritated) so I suppose you can — if you choose — go to my home page and search for the title listed.
    [Adam adds, I edited in the URL, and I hate the spam filters I have in place, too. They annoy me, require work from me, and annoy my readers when I love getting feedback and comments. Feh! Double feh. You can click on Mr. Miller’s name, below, and be taken to the URL.]

  • Jumping on the ChoicePoint Bandwagon Is Easy…

    …but driving it is hard. For everyone out there criticizing ChoicePoint and the other companies with recent data incidents, where are all the solutions? How about channeling some of that negative energy into some problem solving? For instance, take t…

  • Thomas Keller says:

    A solution? The SOLUTION is for companies to stop placing their profits above all other considerations. The SOLUTION is for “entrepreneurs” to cease assming that vecause a ting is POSSIBLE< it OUGHT to be done. The SOLUTION is for people to stop and THINK about the consequences of their actions BEFORE committing them to a business plan.
    Choicepoint is a “victim?” Of what? Of setting themselves up in such a way that the compromises were virtaully GUARANTEED to happen? Puh-leeze!
    Americans have this strange idea that “personal freedom” means that they are allowed to do ANYTHING they can think of that doesn’t clearly violate any written laws (and sometimes that DOES so violate), in the pursuit of money. The almighty DOLLAR is the only consideration. People don’t matter at all.
    I am not a supported of capital punishment, but if I were Derrick Smith would definitiely be sentenced to the death penalty. Why? NOT because he literally STOLE millionsof dollars from investors. NOT because he is a greedy, arrogant bastard. NO. Because he knowingly and willfully destroyed the lives of thousands (millions?) of innocent people, in order to make a profit. He just flat out DIDN’T GIVE A DAMN!!!

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