There Are Good Uses of Information, and Bad

James Lee, chief marketing officer of ChoicePoint, talks about his company's massive personal information business. ChoicePoint verifies data on millions of transactions every day. But it angered critics after accidentally selling information to identity thieves last year.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We now explore what happens when you put personal information on a business form. You fill out an application for insurance, or for a job, then the company checks what you've said with the help of a firm that knows a lot about you.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

ChoicePoint is the latest subject in our conversations about privacy. Its computer searches verify your claims in seconds. That is good for business, though the company recently paid $10 million for letting identity thieves buy personal information. ChoicePoint's chief marketer, James Lee, says consumers have tough decisions to make.

Mr. JAMES LEE (Chief Marketing Officer, ChoicePoint): Once people understand how the information is used, and what the benefit, in this case, to society is, then they make the judgment of we think this is a good use of information and it should continue. We think it's an okay use of information, and perhaps we need a better framework of laws and regulations. Or society can decide, we think this is a bad use of information, and we should stop it. The key to it is, society needs to make that judgment.

INSKEEP: Now, this gets to what I know is a bit of a sensitive subject, but what qualifies a company to come to you and buy information?

Mr. LEE: Today, it's a company who has the permission of an individual to verify information provided to them. So if you apply for insurance, what we do is verify the information you provide about, have you ever had an auto accident? Have you ever filed a homeowner's claim? Or if you're applying for a job and you say you graduated from a certain college or university. Our customer is working with you as a consumer to provide some sort of good service or benefit.

INSKEEP: The reason I say that's a sensitive question is because, as you know, last year, your company had to notify about 150,000 people that you had sold their information to buyers who turned out to be bogus.

Mr. LEE: Absolutely. And, you know, we have focused intently on not just cyber security, but physical security, and the kind of security that comes from ensuring customers are legitimate. And not only are they legitimate, but they're doing legitimate searches--they're using information legitimately.

INSKEEP: The next question I suppose is, do you have any control over how the information is used once you sell it?

Mr. LEE: We do, to a degree. That's the same with any product, or any good or service. You know, once it leaves the hand of the manufacturer, so to speak, how the customer uses it is a little bit out of your control. We control it by not selling data to certain kinds of businesses, or the people we do sell information, we limit the kind of information that's provided so you can minimize the risk that comes from that intentional or unintentional misuse.

INSKEEP: Now, once you start gathering information on someone, say I've applied for a job, my employer asks you to do the search, you gather some information on me. Do you keep it?

Mr. LEE: We keep the report. That information is kept for the purposes of that report only.

INSKEEP: You mean, the next time somebody checks up on me through that company, they won't get any sign of that previous report?

Mr. LEE: There will be a notation that the report occurred, and then we would have to go and gather, maybe the same information, but we'd have to go and gather it again.

INSKEEP: Well, then why keep it?

Mr. LEE: Well, you keep it for a couple of reasons. One is for archival purposes, if there's ever a question about the report. The other purpose would be, your employers like to have the ability to have those reports archived if there's any question in the future about either their performance, or some other issue that might arise. And they want to be able to show, but we did a background check, for example.

INSKEEP: I'm just curious about one other thing. When you were in school, did you read books like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, or George Orwell's 1984?

Mr. LEE: Oh, sure.

INSKEEP: Does it ever seem like those stories about an overwhelmingly present government that knows everything, apply in any way to your business or your situation?

Mr. LEE: Well, certainly people make those comparisons, but I was an equal fan of the Star Trek, where there was the computer that you could talk to, to answer any question you wanted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: There are good uses of information.

INSKEEP: James Lee is chief marketing officer at ChoicePoint. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. LEE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Oh! Ever run a search on yourself?

Mr. LEE: Yes I have.

INSKEEP: How'd you come out?

Mr. LEE: My report was clean, except according to one report, which was not from my own company, I'm actually in jail in a state for the possession of homemade alcohol.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Lee, have a drink on us.

Mr. LEE: All right.

INSKEEP: And our conversations continue tomorrow, when we'll discuss changing notions of what's considered private.

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