Jan. 20, 2005 -- -- There was a time when millions of Americans knew everyone -- or almost everyone they dealt with.
Before the giant chain stores, people went to the corner store, where the owner greeted them by name. That was a system of identification that was based on familiarity. But today, across America, things have changed.
"Because of the mobility of our society, that system of identification is broken down," said Derek Smith of ChoicePoint. "We've got to find a different way in which to be able to get that same information, to re-instill, in many ways, the best of small-town America."
ChoicePoint is one of the biggest of a growing group of companies that accumulate information about Americans' everyday lives, mining data from various sources and selling the information to others.
But in the post-9/11 era, such companies have not only attracted retailers looking to serve their customers better, but the government as well.
In a world that is more dangerous, the government has become convinced that knowing for certain who it is dealing with has become the key to security.
Wealth of Information
And that knowledge can start with something as simple as a phone call to a store.
"Think about the time you call to buy a book or a sweater," said journalist Robert O'Harrow, author of "No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society."
As soon as your phone number pops up on the operator's computer screen, the networks of another data company, Acxiom, can append links to information from a wide range of databases that tell the operator not only your name, but also your estimated income and even the kind of car you drive, said O' Harrow, who collaborated with ABC News on the broadcast "Peter Jennings Reporting: No Place to Hide."
From that information, and much more, marketers -- and now, perhaps, government investigators -- can study what people are likely to do, what kind of attitudes they have, what they buy at the grocery store.
"This is what the data analysts are doing 24 hours a day," he said. "And, in many cases, they're not even doing it, it's the computer intelligence software that's deriving these conclusions."
ChoicePoint once primarily used this information to do background checks for corporations, but increasingly, it works with the nation's intelligence agencies, looking for people who might threaten the country.
"These companies are, in essence, becoming private intelligence operations. They collect information, they analyze it, they find links among people, they look for tendencies, and they do it much faster than traditional intelligence services were ever able to do," said Harrow.
Lessons from 9/11
There certainly is an argument to be made for the government to engage in information-sharing.
Take the example of 9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar. Even before the attacks, they were already on U.S. government watch lists because of possible links to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000.
But federal agencies like the CIA and FBI failed to share their information with each other. They were not technologically nor bureaucratically equipped to do so, and they failed to connect the dots that might have led to the unveiling of the plot.
The CIA apparently didn't know Alhazmi and Almihdhar were already in the country when it alerted the Immigration and Naturalization Service, FBI and Coast Guard not to let them in the country. They were even booking flights using their own names, and did not trigger any alerts.
Private databases could have been useful because Almihdhar gave an address also used by Marwan Al-Shehhi and Mohamed Atta, two of the hijacker pilots. Again, no one connected the dots between someone on the terrorist watch list and his accomplices.
Atta made a plane reservation with a phone number that could have tied him to five more of hijackers. Alhazmi used the same address as another hijacker, Salem Alhazmi. And ironically, there was one more number shared between Almihdhar and another of the hijackers, Majed Moqed: a frequent-flier number.
However, Jeff Jonas, a computer scientist who has received financial backing from the CIA, points out even these precautions may not have stopped the tragedy.
"I fear that, maybe, if we knew they were going to get on the plane, we might have surveilled them on the other end, waiting for them to get off the plane, to see what meeting they were going to," he said. "In fact, they would have never landed."
Who Is Nicole Robinson?
Today, almost any piece of information in the public record is available to private companies who market that information to others. And the government, with only some limitations, is able to obtain it as well.
But many observers now worry that private companies are not accountable in the same way that government is -- and yet government is increasingly counting on these private companies.
When the information in these private databases is wrong, there can be serious consequences. A recent survey of credit reports by a public interest group found that more than half the reports it studied had personal information that was incorrect.
In April 2000, Nicole Robinson, of suburban Maryland, allegedly had her identity stolen by a woman in Texas who had the same first and last names. To date, at least 65 different addresses and 42 different names have been used in connection with her Social Security number.
Nearly five years later, she is still unable to clean up her credit record and establish definitively who she is, even though the woman in Texas has been arrested.
And if Nicole from Maryland is now somewhere in the government system, for whatever reason, the government may not be able to figure out precisely who she is.
"The systems can't determine that we are actually two separate people," she said. "So essentially, I am an alias of her, or she is an alias of me."
There are also concerns that the government is not capable of sharing the right information, about the right person, at the right time -- without harassing innocent people.
One example is David Fathi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who has been told he is on a government "no fly" list. Fathi has been detained at airports 10 times in the last year and a half. He thinks it may be his name, which is Iranian.
Being detained is "unpleasant and stressful and humiliating," he said. "And the most frustrating thing about it is that the government won't tell me why I am on this list, and it won't tell me what I can do to get off."
But Fathi is also alarmed that the security system -- managed by the government in partnership with private airlines -- doesn't catch him every time.
Fathi did manage to get a letter from the government clearing his name. "But as far as I can tell that process has made no difference whatsoever. And I still get stopped with about the same frequency as I did before," he said.
In this and other cases, the government seems like it can't get its information straight. According to its own analysis, the Department of Homeland Security has failed to merge 12 separate terrorist watch lists currently being used by nine federal agencies.
Big Brother's Shadow
People who fear that Americans will lose all their privacy often cite George Orwell's novel "1984" -- about a society led by Big Brother, who ultimately censors everyone's behavior and even their thoughts.
In recent years, the federal government has launched more than 100 separate data analysis systems in 52 federal agencies -- giving the government the ability to know more about its citizens than ever before. There are not many rules about how the government can use private sector data in these systems.
One of those systems, created by the Defense Department, so alarmed members of Congress that they ultimately refused to fund it. The system, called "Total Information Awareness," was an ambitious research project designed to look for ways to predict future attacks by sifting for signs of terrorist activity in oceans of data all over the world. The project's symbol was an all-seeing eye, and its motto in Latin was, "Knowledge Is Power." Its critics believed it was science fiction run amok.
Joseph Atick, the founder and chief executive officer of identity verification company Identix Corp., said we still have to "keep reminding ourselves we are humans. We are not just numbers. We have to treat people with enormous respect and enormous recourse -- give them the ability to challenge the systems and not be subjugated by them."
"Nobody here is aiming to create a surveillance society," O'Harrow said. "But it's hard to deny the fact that that's where we're headed, and that as all this technology converges, and as the laws make it easier to collect and analyze information, it's happening in a sense despite our best wishes and our best intentions."