NEW YORK -- Derek V. Smith sees bad people lurking everywhere: terrorists, sexual predators, quack doctors, identity thieves. And yet Smith colors himself an optimist, insisting that society can protect itself from such dicey characters, using information as a shield.
In Smith's view, if we did more to examine each other's digital footprints - addresses, employment records, credit data, lawsuits, criminal files, professional licenses, vehicle registrations - the world would be safer.
Not surprisingly, Smith can supply much of that information - he heads ChoicePoint Inc., a leading electronic data warehouse regularly mined by companies and the government. ChoicePoint does 8 million background checks a year, serving more than half of the Fortune 500.
Database aggregators like ChoicePoint have quietly become powerful arbiters, whirring in the background when people seek jobs, get on airplanes, apply for insurance, commit a crime or fall victim to one. ChoicePoint's computers are packed with 19 billion public records.
That wide reach has made privacy activists suspicious. They worry that the ChoicePoints of the world don't do enough to safeguard information that, while often technically public, has never before been so efficiently and completely gathered in one place.
Smith, however, is here to tell you that database companies and privacy advocates need not be so adversarial.
He's on a charm offensive of sorts this spring, releasing two books about fighting risks in the information age and talking up a sure-to-be-controversial plan for a high-tech ID card.
Smith's goal is to provoke a debate that he hopes will lead to a consensus - and possibly new federal laws - governing how database technologies can be used to improve national security without destroying individual privacy.
"If Mr. Smith calls for a debate, I welcome it," said Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We haven't had a coherent way to discuss these issues. We haven't had a 9/11 commission on privacy, and we won't have one until something goes off the rails. And then, it's too late."
With his plainspoken style and an accent tinged by a childhood on Long Island, Smith, 49, says 21st-century data mining can restore feelings of security that permeated America's small-town past.
"We knew the people who coached our children. We knew the people that were our physicians. We had an insight into the people that influenced our lives," Smith said in an interview. "Now today, people influence our lives who live geographically far, in a diverse way, yet we need to know more about those people."
That may sound like an awfully romantic spin on database technology, which is, after all, big business.
Since being spun off in 1997 from credit giant Equifax Inc., Alpharetta, Ga.-based ChoicePoint has become an $800 million institution that acquires a company - along with its data trove - every two months. ChoicePoint owns a DNA analysis lab, facilitates drug testing for employers and recently began selling background-checking CD-ROMs at Sam's Club.
But Smith says ChoicePoint is careful in its choices. For example, he says he opposes three data-mining projects that have alarmed civil libertarians: the Pentagon's now-quashed Total Information Awareness system, the CAPPS II airline passenger screening system and the Matrix multistate crime and terrorism network. CAPPS and Matrix get data from ChoicePoint rivals.
To Smith, each follows a flawed model: assembling a huge pool of data on people and then mining it to look for suspicious patterns or evidence that might be relevant to a case.
Instead, Smith believes disparate collections of data should remain separate until an investigator has probable cause to put the pieces together.
"So instead of starting with 281 million Americans ... you start with one or a very small number, and then you see what kind of connectivity you can build," he said. "That, typically, is not threatening."
To be sure, Smith knows from experience about database technologies seeming threatening.
Last year, a furor erupted in Latin American countries when The Associated Press reported that ChoicePoint had sold their citizens' home addresses, unlisted phone numbers and other personal information to the U.S. government. U.S. agencies used the data to track immigration violators and crime suspects.
ChoicePoint responded by deleting many of the files.
The company also took heat after a firm it had acquired, DBT Online Inc., supplied Florida elections officials with an inaccurate list of felons - the roster included some people with misdemeanors. Those names were purged from voter rolls before the 2000 elections.
Smith says that mess convinced him to keep ChoicePoint out of "any procedure that involved an individual's privilege in society being revoked" unless people snared in the process could appeal to a nonpartisan panel.
In the same vein, he says he won't allow arrest records to be included in background-screening reports that ChoicePoint sells to employers.
As Smith displays these democratic, sometimes altruistic credentials (he's donating his book profits to charity), it's striking to hear of his newest project - an optional high-tech card that would give pre-screened people the opportunity to enter office buildings, sporting events and other secure areas more quickly.
Think of it as a fast lane for people willing to proclaim that they are trustworthy and have nothing to hide - while everyone else has to go through more rigorous checks.
ChoicePoint is providing the background-screening data to the project, which is known as Verified Identity Pass and was launched by media entrepreneur Steven Brill.
Plans call for the system to debut in as-yet undisclosed places within a few months, with the cards costing about $40 each, plus $3 a month. People whose employers adopt the system, such as hospitals or chemical plants, would be allowed personal use of the card for much less money.
The cards would include a thumbprint biometric, and would be given only to people who agreed to have key aspects of their background checked and monitored. Anyone who has a serious felony in their past or appears on a terrorist watch list, for example, would be rejected.
Might the system play into the hands of terrorists who are careful not to do anything suspicious for years, then sign up for a card? Smith doubts it.
"Cause guess what? We've got your biometric, we now have your picture, we got data that we verify about where you were or where you lived," he said. "You've now given us, in essence, your individual passport to find you."
However, Brill promises not to record when and where card holders use the system.
"We don't want to have the information, so no one can ask us for it," he said. He also says he has arranged for a civil liberties group to choose an ombudsman who will monitor the system and issue public reports.
Still, Brill expects the project to provoke tough questions.
"I think it should be controversial," he said. "There should be a debate about this."
That fits with Smith's call for a civilized discussion about privacy and technology, a debate that civil liberties groups say failed to materialize as Congress imposed the Patriot Act and other post-Sept. 11 security measures.
A full-fledged debate could, of course, lead to suggestions that companies like ChoicePoint make it easier for people to examine information stored about them.
But Smith says he's willing to accept wherever society wants to go.
"This isn't me telling you, 'This is my view on where data should be used,"' Smith said. "It's me saying, 'Let's create a framework, and then you decide.' Because I have enough faith in the American people and in the legitimacy of data, that there's enough business opportunities, there's enough places we can make a difference in the world."
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