"The information we make available to law enforcement is what we call public filing or public domain," said ChoicePoint Vice President Jim Zimbardi. "The dilemma [for law enforcement] is the time and effort needed to go get it."

Narrow It Down

The FACTS system doesn't tell law enforcement where to go or who to arrest, nor does it monitor or track people, Zadra said. "It's an application loaded onto my computer. It's query based. It doesn't run at night and say, 'Here's the top 10 terrorists in Florida' when I come in in the morning."

For instance, Zadra said, if a child was abducted in a white van and somebody saw that it had a Florida tag with the number seven in it, and it was driven by a middle-aged white man, the system could narrow the search to white males who are registered sex offenders, and drive white vans licensed in Florida. It would take minutes rather than days, which could mean life or death for the child.

"Does that mean I can serve a search warrant or make an arrest? Absolutely not," Zadra said. "But it can tell me I need to find these people to possibly eliminate them quickly and begin focusing on the right people."

Solving crimes still comes down to good police work, Zadra said. "Investigators and analysts solve crimes. The system doesn't solve crimes. It's a tool. It produces investigative leads. We go through the same time-honored investigative techniques we always did. I'm a citizen and a law enforcement officer. The truth is, I don't know what the problem is with law enforcement having that data."

What About Privacy?

Privacy advocates, including Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, do have a problem with law enforcement's access to personally identifying information.

"When we have the government outsourcing data aggregation to other companies, the question is, do the restrictions that apply to the government apply to the companies as well? And of course, the answer is, only if we know what information the government is accessing," Rose said.

Under the federal Privacy Act, said Rose, citizens have the right to make sure data held by the government is correct. It's unclear, however, whether data accessed by government officials from commercial databases is covered under the act.

Privacy concerns surround financial and health information, and some wonder whether data aggregators collect such information. "They can say they don't have that, but we don't know," Rose said. "A lot of them say they collect everything."

Although law enforcement says all that information is available to them anyway, Rose insists, "We don't know that, because for the most part, the data aggregators keep that proprietary. We don't know what processes private companies are using because they don't have the same restrictions as government does."

James Lee, ChoicePoint's chief marketing officer, said the company does sometimes provide credit reports to government agencies, but that they are truncated reports, meaning they don't have account numbers. "They don't have the information you need to see what a person does with their finances," he said. "They don't have mortgage or buying information. Our information is nonfinancial."

A law enforcement agency could get its hands on that information, and since privacy restrictions don't appear to apply to government's use of commercial data, this creates the possibility of abuse, Rose said. She called this an end run around the First and Fourth amendments.

Rose said law enforcement is free to use that data for whatever it wants, even personal exploits. "When [law enforcement] can do it in their official capacity and for free, the potential for abuse becomes greater and there don't appear to be any restrictions on

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor