But a lawsuit filed in federal court last week by a coalition of civil rights groups against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and several state election officials also names a local data-collection company -- Alpharetta-based ChoicePoint and its Florida subsidiary, DBT -- for its role in mistakenly identifying thousands of Florida voters as ineligible to participate in the election.
James Lee, ChoicePoint's vice president of marketing, says the company provided only a rough list of potentially ineligible voters, as specified in its contract with Florida, and that confirming those voters' actual status was up to the state.
DBT, the Boca Raton-based company acquired by ChoicePoint last April, was instructed to screen out names that might fit one of three categories: deceased voters; people registered to vote in more than one county; and convicted felons whose rights have not been restored, and are thus barred from voting in Florida.
Lee says the breakdown occurred at the local level, when county elections officials failed to adequately verify whether those listed were, in fact, ineligible.
Valerie Buford-Wells, one of 21 plaintiffs in the suit, described herself as "very frustrated" when she showed up to vote in her Pompano Beach precinct Nov. 7.
But the court case raises a larger issue. After all, in a world where one's ability to get a job, open a bank account or -- in Florida's so-far unique experiment -- vote, a single bit of false information can lead to major headaches.
And, unlike consumer credit reports which must be made available for inspection and correction, there's absolutely no control or review available to those who may have been erroneously sullied via the Internet. In fact, you may already be a felon -- and you may never even know it.
"There are no federal regulations I'm aware of dealing with the accuracy of records," says Claudia Bourne Farrell of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC oversees compliance with laws like the Fair Consumer Credit Act, which attempt to limit the dissemination of consumers' private financial information. "We always recommend that people check their credit reports regularly," she says, "because many people say their own reports are full of errors."
Already, federal law and some states restrict the use and collection of personal data, and several high-profile lawsuits have helped awaken the public to some Information Highway hazards. But the issue of erroneous data files has largely gone ignored and may remain that way, says Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology.
"It's definitely a privacy issue, though people don't often think of it that way," says Schwartz. "One of the issues in data collection is data quality -- whether the information is adequate, timely and correct." The problem that bedevils companies like ChoicePoint, which relies almost solely on public records for its information, is that such information is often outdated, incomplete or just plain wrong.
As CL discovered during a look at Georgia's criminal record system last year, local law enforcement agencies vary widely in their adherence to approved criminal record input procedures, and mistakes -- including innocent people being locked up or fired -- do happen. On a national level, although the FBI declines to reveal a "standard" margin of error, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said the national figure is about 2 percent.
All of which, when multiplied by the billions of records being accumulated by data collectors large and small, ethical and shady, point to a pernicious problem. ChoicePoint, which spun off of data-collection pioneer Equifax in 1997, boasts a mind-boggling 10.5 billion public records in its database.
"So companies like ChoicePoint are aggregating all these records together," says Schwartz, "and oftentimes that information is incorrect, and oftentimes people don't have any means of correcting it, or even gaining access to it."
Lee notes that many companies -- including his own -- offer services where consumers may, for a fee, research the records available online, and many states now put criminal records on their websites, as well. Still, the likelihood that most citizens will go online and spend some cash just to see what's out there is slim indeed -- until they've been bounced out of the voting booth or escorted off the job site.
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