Data Brokers Can Be Frighteningly Accurate and Laughably Wrong

What's to come?
March 3 2014 7:29 AM

What Do Data Brokers Know About Me?

I tried to find out. Some of their information is frighteningly accurate—and some of it laughably wrong.

One data broker thinks this is my lifestyle. Not quite.
One data broker thinks this is my lifestyle. Not quite.

Photo by Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

This essay is excerpted from Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance, by Julia Angwin, published by Times Books.

I once ran into a friend and her husband at the playground in our neighborhood in Manhattan. As we watched our daughters—who are the same age—play on the jungle gym, the husband asked me about the articles I had been writing regarding privacy.

“I used to care more about privacy,” he said. I braced myself for the usual “I have nothing to hide” argument. But he surprised me with an entirely different approach. He said he realized that he “liked the idea of leaving artifacts” about his life more than he worried about his privacy. In short, he said, all this data was providing “immortality.”

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I got a glimpse at this immortality when, as part of an “audit” I conducted to determine what information about me is out there, I peeked at the facts that data brokers have about me. This happened when I was sitting on Mike Griffin’s deck overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in the Baltimore suburbs.

Mike is a “repo” man who stumbled into the automobile surveillance business. He is tall and thin and filled with nervous energy. He seems to subsist entirely on coffee and cigarettes.

I was doing research for an article about the rise of automated license plate readers and decided to pay Mike a visit. He runs one of the largest private license plate snapping operations in the United States. His fleet of 10 camera-equipped cars log 300 to 400 miles a day, scanning plates in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas. Each month, his two shifts of drivers collect data about the location of 1 million plates.

Mike primarily uses the data to spot cars that are wanted for repossession. The technology has boosted his captures to 15 cars a night, up from about six per night without the cameras. But Mike says his ultimate goal is to sell access to his data to bail bondsmen, process servers, private investigators, and insurers. “In the next five years, I hope my primary business will be data gathering,” he told me.

He mused about one possible buyer for the data: a company called TLO. I had been hearing about TLO for years. The founder, Hank Asher, was legendary. A former drug smuggler turned law enforcement buff, Asher was the most flamboyant guy in the data brokerage business.

Asher made millions through owning a business that painted high-rise buildings in Florida and retired at 30. He moved to Great Harbor Cay in the Bahamas, drove a fast boat, flew a twin-engine Aerostar, and developed a cocaine habit. Eventually, after agreeing to fly a few loads of cocaine to Florida, he realized he’d gone too far. He quit cold turkey and decided he wanted to clean up drug smuggling on the island.

He started working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and noticed that the agency needed better databases. In 1992, he launched a product called AutoTrack that would change the data-collection industry.

AutoTrack was a better way to search public records: Asher bought data from the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles and made it easily searchable. Suddenly police could look up a person’s driving and vehicle records just by searching an address or part of a Social Security number or fragment of a name. Previously, police had to enter a person’s entire name, gender, and birth date to obtain a plate. AutoTrack changed the way police investigations were done. Journalistic investigations, too. I’ve used AutoTrack many times to find the names and addresses of people I was investigating.

Eventually, however, Asher’s flamboyance and drug history caught up with him, and his company bought him out for $147 million. Undeterred, Asher soon started another company with a very similar product called Accurint. After Sept. 11, he put together a program called MATRIX that would create a “high terrorist factor” list, but it ran aground on privacy concerns. Again, Asher resigned from his company under pressure.

In 2009, Asher made another run at the business, founding a database company called TLO, standing for The Last One, as in the last one he planned to launch. He turned out to be right about that; he died at age 61 in 2013.

Mike said TLO’s data were good and cheaper than data provided by LexisNexis, which years earlier had bought Asher’s two previous firms. TLO charged only 25 cents to conduct a simple search and $5 for an advanced search. By comparison, LexisNexis’ PeopleWise service charged $1.95 for a basic report and $24.95 for a premium report.

“Can I see my report?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

In less than a minute I was holding a four-page report, containing all my previous addresses—dating back to the number on my dorm room in college: 536B. There was not a single piece of inaccurate information in the report.

It took my breath away. I had forgotten the number on my dorm room, the address of the group house in Washington that I had shared with five other recent college graduates, and my brief tenure in a New York City studio before moving in with my husband. Each address brought back a wave of memories.

This was my real life, dating back decades. Talk about immortality.

But as I sought out my information from other data brokers, my love affair with immortality lost steam. I compiled a list of more than 200 commercial data brokers, and I was pretty sure I hadn’t identified all of them. This wasn’t immortality; this was prostitution.

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