Not Just Security - Accuracy

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2005-06-14 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Steven Calderon was into his second week working as a security guard for Fry's Electronics when Anaheim, Calif., police walked in and arrested him. Fry's had requested a background check on Calderon, which was done by The Screening Network, a service of C

Not Just Security — Accuracy

But, as the Calderon case shows, data security isn't necessarily ChoicePoint's only challenge.

The other shoe that has yet to drop is the accuracy of the information it is supplying. The accuracy of the files inside the information repositories of ChoicePoint and America's other data brokers is critical to decision-making by companies that increasingly rely on automated rules that act on electronic flows of unseen information to make decisions in a fraction of a second, in great volume.

ChoicePoint's list of clients totals 50,000 businesses and has included such well-known names as General Electric, Home Depot, IBM, Boston Market, the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"The private sector and, increasingly, government rely on the data provided by ChoicePoint to determine whether Americans get home loans, are hired for jobs, obtain insurance, pass background checks and qualify for government contracts," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public interest group, in prepared testimony on ChoicePoint before a March 15 meeting of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

About three-quarters of ChoicePoint's business involves distributing information under federal and state regulations, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which states: "Whenever a consumer reporting agency prepares a consumer report, it shall follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates."

Yet ChoicePoint has faced at least a half-dozen suits over the accuracy of its reports, filed by persons as disparate as an assembly line worker retired from General Electric to a marketing professional applying for a job at IBM. In at least one case, a court ordered ChoicePoint to pay more than a quarter-million dollars to a Kentucky woman because the company erroneously reported that she had a number of claims against her insurance carrier—leaving her unable to afford insurance.

But that's a small number, from ChoicePoint's view. "Obviously, from time to time, we are subject to litigation," says Doug Curling, ChoicePoint's president and chief operating officer. "However, we work very hard. And our track record would show we are very successful at making sure the information product that we deliver to our customer is accurate."

ChoicePoint has said that incorrect information is produced less than once in every 1,000 of the 7.3 million background checks it performs each year. Even at less than one-tenth of 1%, however, that leaves close to 6,000 errors.

And ChoicePoint doesn't really know how accurate the records in its systems are. When asked how ChoicePoint gauges accuracy, Curling said the company only counts errors "associated with a dispute." That means individuals must find or obtain a copy of a ChoicePoint report, be their own fact-checkers on the reports, try to bring the errors to the attention of the company and then follow up to make sure the errors are actually corrected, permanently.

When Curling was asked what percentage of the data stored in its systems was accurate, he called the line of questioning "hostile." The premise, he maintained, is "so broad you know it can't be accurately answered."

But by ChoicePoint's own admission, it does not check nor feel it is responsible for the accuracy of the estimated 17 billion files it has collected and stored. It assumes only that the facts it acquires are accurate when they arrive. "We do not verify the factual basis of a record, but instead rely on the assertions of our data sources that created the record," wrote James Lee, the company's chief marketing officer, in an e-mail to Baseline.

Story Guide:

Blur: The importance of Accuracy

  • Not Just Security — Accuracy.
  • "Serious" Errors are Common
  • Data Customers Pay the Costs
  • Collecting Data Without Garbage Filters
  • Records "Full of Inccuracies"
  • Crap In, Crap Out
  • Fix It Yourself
  • No Way To Check
  • ChoicePoint Data at a Glance


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