Nicaraguans raid firms accused of selling government files

Saturday, April 26, 2003

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Police raided the offices of two Nicaraguan businesses accused of selling government files to a U.S. data-gathering company, and discovered one of them had a database containing federal voting records, authorities said Friday.

Also Friday, the U.S. data vendor, ChoicePoint Inc. said it was preparing a response to an inquiry from Mexico's federal elections agency. The e-mailed request asked ChoicePoint to identify Mexican companies hired to purchase a database of Mexicans' personal details.

ChoicePoint said it bought official registry files from subcontractors in Nicaragua and Mexico, as well as Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The Atlanta-based company sells Internet access to the information to the U.S. immigration service, Justice Department and other agencies.

While ChoicePoint has refused to name the sellers, Nicaraguan authorities believe the businesses Informacion en Linea de Nicaragua and the local rental car company Targa sold confidential records.

Late Thursday, authorities raided both companies' headquarters in the capital, Managua, and discovered electoral records stored on Targa's computers.

ChoicePoint marketing director James Lee said his company buys citizen data from a single subcontractor in Nicaragua which he declined to identify. The file contains Nicaraguans' names, dates of birth, addresses, telephone numbers and citizen ID numbers, Lee said.

The company sells similar details on 65 million Mexicans, along with drivers license data on 6 million residents of Mexico City.

Computers and databases controlled by Nicaragua's Targa and Informacion en Linea contained credit card information, judicial and property records and even cell phone numbers for President Enrique Bolanos and other top-ranking government officials, a police spokesman said.

This week, Interior Minister Eduardo Urcuyo said the government would file criminal charges against anyone who sold government files.

Urcuyo said authorities believe the two companies whose offices were raided as well as six other Nicaraguan businesses sold confidential records to ChoicePoint.

Authorities in Nicaragua, Mexico and Costa Rica started investigating the data sales after The Associated Press revealed the U.S. government's purchases of the information earlier this month.

In Mexico last week, Interior Minister Santiago Creel said sales of Mexican voter rolls to ChoicePoint would be investigated as a "criminal act."

ChoicePoint insists it purchases the data legally through local subcontractors who certify the files are being sold for permissible uses.

Lee said the company would cooperate with any investigation. He said ChoicePoint would consider requests by Mexico or other governments to halt sales of its citizens' personal details during an investigation.

"If it's determined the information isn't validly obtained, then we'd certainly pull it back. But we have absolutely no reason to believe that," he said.

Over the past 18 months, the U.S. government has bought access to data on hundreds of millions of residents of 10 Latin American countries, allowing myriad federal agencies to track foreigners entering and living in the United States.

ChoicePoint sells the information to U.S. government officials in three dozen agencies, including federal immigration investigators who've used it to arrest illegal immigrants.

Most of the files appear to originate in agencies that register voters or issue national IDs and drivers licenses. The company's contracts require data sellers to declare they obtained the information legally.

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