Tuesday, August 10, 2004
Will The Gang That Fixed Florida Fix the Vote in
Caracas this Sunday?
by Greg Palast From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hugo Chavez drives George Bush crazy. Maybe it's
jealousy: Unlike Mr. Bush, Chavez, in Venezuela, won
his Presidency by a majority of the vote.
Or maybe it's the oil: Venezuela sits atop a reserve
rivaling Iraq's. And Hugo thinks the US and British oil
companies that pump the crude ought to pay more than a
16% royalty to his nation for the stuff. Hey, sixteen
percent isn't even acceptable as a tip at a New York
Whatever it is, OUR President has decided that THEIR
president has to go. This is none too easy given that
Chavez is backed by Venezuela's poor. And the US oil
industry, joined with local oligarchs, has made sure a
vast majority of Venezuelans remain poor.
Therefore, Chavez is expected to win this coming
Sunday's recall vote. That is, if the elections are
free and fair.
They won't be. Some months ago, a little birdie faxed
to me what appeared to be confidential pages from a
contract between John Ashcroft's Justice Department and
a company called ChoicePoint, Inc., of Atlanta. The
deal is part of the War on Terror.
Justice offered up to $67 million, of our taxpayer
money, to ChoicePoint in a no-bid deal, for computer
profiles with private information on every citizen of
half a dozen nations. The choice of which nation's
citizens to spy on caught my eye. While the September
11th highjackers came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon
and the Arab Emirates, ChoicePoint's menu offered
records on Venezuelans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans,
Mexicans and Argentines. How odd. Had the CIA uncovered
a Latin plot to sneak suicide tango dancers across the
border with exploding enchiladas?
What do these nations have in common besides a lack of
involvement in the September 11th attacks?
Coincidentally, each is in the throes of major
electoral contests in which the leading candidates --
presidents Lula Ignacio da Silva of Brazil, Nestor
Kirschner of Argentina, Mexico City mayor Andres Lopez
Obrador and Venezuela's Chavez -- have the nerve to
challenge the globalization demands of George W. Bush.
The last time ChoicePoint sold voter files to our
government it was to help Governor Jeb Bush locate and
purge felons on Florida voter rolls. Turns out
ChoicePoint's felons were merely Democrats guilty only
of V.W.B., Voting While Black. That little 'error' cost
Al Gore the White House.
It looks like the Bush Administration is taking the
Florida show for a tour south of the border.
However, when Mexico discovered ChoicePoint had its
citizen files, the nation threatened company executives
with criminal charges. ChoicePoint protested its
innocence and offered to destroy the files of any
nation that requests it.
But ChoicePoint, apparently, presented no such offer to
the government of Venezuela's Chavez.
In Caracas, I showed Congressman Nicolas Maduro the
ChoicePoint-Ashcroft agreement. Maduro, a leader of
Chavez' political party, was unaware that his nation's
citizen files were for sale to U.S. intelligence. But
he understood their value to make mischief.
If the lists somehow fell into the hands of the
Venezuelan opposition, it could immeasurably help their
computer-aided drive to recall and remove Chavez. A
ChoicePoint flak said the Bush administration told the
company they haven't used the lists that way. The PR
man didn't say if the Bush spooks laughed when they
Our team located a $53,000 payment from our government
to Chavez' recall organizers, who claim to be armed
with computer lists of the registered. How did they get
those lists? The fix that was practiced in Florida,
with ChoicePoint's help, deliberate or not, appears to
be retooled for Venezuela, then Brazil, Mexico and who
knows where else.
Here's what it comes down to: The Justice Department
averts it's gaze from Saudi Arabia but shoplifts voter
records in Venezuela. So it's only fair to ask: Is Mr.
Bush fighting a war on terror -- or a war on democracy?
Greg Palast is author of the New York Times bestseller,
'The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.' This commentary is
based on 'Tango Terrorists,' in the new chapter of the
book's Expanded Election Edition (Penguin 2004). For
Palast's reports on Venezuela for the Guardian of
Britain and his exclusive interview for BBC Television
with President Hugo Chavez, go to www.GregPalast.com
Big Business Becoming Big Brother
By Kim Zetter
Monday 09 August 2004
The government is increasingly using corporations to do its surveillance work, allowing it to get
around restrictions that protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, according to a report
released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that works to protect civil
Data aggregators - companies that aggregate information from numerous private and public
databases - and private companies that collect information about their customers are increasingly
giving or selling data to the government to augment its surveillance capabilities and help it track the
activities of people.
Because laws that restrict government data collection don't apply to private industry, the
government is able to bypass restrictions on domestic surveillance. Congress needs to close such
loopholes, the ACLU said, before the exchange of information gets out of hand.
"Americans would really be shocked to discover the extent of the practices that are now common in
both industry and government," said the ACLU's Jay Stanley, author of the report. "Industry and
government know that, so they have a strong incentive to not publicize a lot of what's going on."
Last year, JetBlue Airways acknowledged that it secretly gave defense contractor Torch Concepts 5
million passenger itineraries for a government project on passenger profiling without the consent of the
passengers. The contractor augmented the data with passengers' Social Security numbers, income
information and other personal data to test the feasibility of a screening system called CAPPS II. That
project was slated to launch later this year until the government scrapped it. Other airlines also
contributed data to the project.
Information about the data-sharing project came to light only by accident. Critics like Stanley say
there are many other government projects like this that are proceeding in secret.
The ACLU released the Surveillance-Industrial Complex report in conjunction with a new website
designed to educate the public about how information collected from them is being used.
The report listed three ways in which government agencies obtain data from the private sector: by
purchasing the data, by obtaining a court order or simply by asking for it. Corporations freely share
information with government agencies because they don't want to appear to be unpatriotic, they hope
to obtain future lucrative Homeland Security contracts with the government or they fear increased
government scrutiny of their business practices if they don't share.
But corporations aren't the only ones giving private data to the government. In 2002, the Professional
Association of Diving Instructors voluntarily gave the FBI the names and addresses of about 2 million
people who had studied scuba diving in previous years. And a 2002 survey found that nearly 200
colleges and universities gave the FBI information about students. Most of these institutions provided
the information voluntarily without having received a subpoena.
Collaborative surveillance between government and the private sector is not new. For three decades
during the Cold War, for example, telegraph companies like Western Union, RCA Global and
International Telephone and Telegraph gave the National Security Agency, or NSA, all cables that went
to or from the United States. Operation Shamrock, which ran from 1945 to 1975, helped the NSA
compile 75,000 files on individuals and organizations, many of them involved in peace movements and
These days, the increasing amount of electronic data that is collected and stored, along with
developments in software technology, make it easy for the government to sort through mounds of data
quickly to profile individuals through their connections and activities.
Although the Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the government from keeping dossiers on Americans
unless they are the specific target of an investigation, the government circumvents the legislation by
piggybacking on private-sector data collection.
Corporations are not subject to congressional oversight or Freedom of Information Act requests -
two methods for monitoring government activities and exposing abuses. And no laws prevent
companies from voluntarily sharing most data with the government.
"The government is increasingly ... turning to private companies, which are not subject to the law,
and buying or compelling the transfer of private data that it could not collect itself," the report states.
A government proposal for a national ID card, for example, was shot down by civil liberties groups
and Congress for being too intrusive and prone to abuse. And Congress voted to cancel funding for
John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness, a national database that would have tracked citizens'
private transactions such as Web surfing, bank deposits and withdrawals, doctor visits, travel
itineraries and visa and passport applications.
But this hasn't stopped the government from achieving the same ends by buying similar data from
private aggregators like Acxiom, ChoicePoint, Abacus and LexisNexis. According to the ACLU,
ChoicePoint's million-dollar contracts with the Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Administration
and other federal agencies let authorities tap into its billions of records to track the interests, lifestyles
and activities of Americans.
By using corporations, the report said, the government can set up a system of "distributed
surveillance" to create a bigger picture than it could create with its own limited resources and at the
same time "insulate surveillance and information-handling practices from privacy laws or public
Most of the transactions people make are with the private sector, not the government. So the
amount of data available through the private sector is much greater.
Every time people withdraw money from an ATM, buy books or CDs, fill prescriptions or rent cars,
someone else, somewhere, is collecting information about them and their transactions. On its own,
each bit of information says little about the person being tracked. But combined with health and
insurance records, bank loans, divorce records, election contributions and political activities,
corporations can create a detailed dossier.
And studies show that Americans trust corporations more than they trust their government, so
they're more likely to give companies their information freely. A 2002 phone survey about a proposed
national ID plan, conducted by Gartner, found respondents preferred private industry - such as bank or
credit card companies - to administer a national ID system rather than the government.
Stanley said most people are unaware how information about them is passed on to government
agencies and processed.
"People have a right to know just how information about them is being used and combined into a
high-resolution picture of (their) life," Stanley said.
Although the Privacy Act attempted to put stops on government surveillance, Stanley said that its
authors did not anticipate the explosion in private-sector data collection.
"It didn't anticipate the growth of data aggregators and the tremendous amount of information that
they're able to put together on virtually everyone or the fact that the government could become
customers of these companies," Stanley said.
Although the report focused primarily on the flow of data from corporations to the government, data
flow actually goes both ways. The government has shared its watch lists with the private sector,
opening the way for potential discrimination against customers who appear on the lists. Under section
314 of the Patriot Act, the government can submit a suspect list to financial institutions to see whether
the institution has conducted transactions with any individuals or organizations on the list. But once
the government shares the list, nothing prevents the institution from discriminating against individuals
or organizations on the list.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI circulated a watch list to corporations that
contained hundreds of names of people the FBI was interested in talking to, although the people were
not under investigation or wanted by the FBI. Companies were more than happy to check the list
against the names of their customers. And if they used the list for other purposes, it's difficult to know.
The report notes that there is no way to determine how many job applicants might have been denied
work because their names appeared on the list.
"It turns companies into sheriff's deputies, responsible not just for feeding information to the
government, but for actually enforcing the government's wishes, for example by effectively blacklisting
anyone who has been labeled as a suspect under the government's less-than-rigorous procedures for
identifying risks," the report states.
Last March, the Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee, created by Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld to examine government data mining, issued a report (PDF) stating that "rapid action
is necessary" to establish clear guidelines for responsible government data mining.
The ACLU's Stanley said companies are in the initial stages of the Homeland Security gold rush to
get government contracts, and that the public and Congress need to do something before policies and
practices of private-sector surveillance solidify.
"Government security agencies always have a hunger for more and more information," said Stanley.
"It's only natural. It makes it easier for law enforcement if they have access to as much info as they
want. But it's crucial that policy makers and political leaders balance the needs of law enforcement
and the value of privacy that Americans have always expected and enjoyed."