ID at issue in suspect's case
Posted on Wed, Jun. 11, 2003
By Catherine Wilson
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MIAMI - Prosecutors proved to a judge's satisfaction Tuesday that a Colombian rebel in their custody is Nelson Vargas Rueda, but his attorney questioned whether the man is one of six rebels wanted in the killing of three American aid workers.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff ruled that prosecutors met the minimum legal standard for identifying Vargas because he acknowledges that's his name, but the judge said the disputed issue may come up again in future court hearings in Washington.
"The only issue before me is whether the person in court is the person named in the indictment," Turnoff told the defense. "The arguments you've made may be significant down the line."
Vargas was identified in a Colombian lineup as one of the gunmen who killed Americans helping set up a rural school system near the Colombia-Venezuela border in 1999, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Hugo Black. Vargas, 33, was extradited to the United States on May 28.
Celeste Higgins, Vargas' attorney, claimed Colombian investigators thought Vargas was a different indicted rebel known as "El Marrano," Spanish slang for "The Pig," for two of the three years he has been in custody.
"El Marrano" is now thought to be someone else. The indictment issued last year listed two other aliases for Vargas: Alfredo and Hugo.
"Clearly they didn't know who it was they had detained," Higgins told the judge. "They simply injected his name into the indictment and brought him over to the United States."
Indictment vague on identities
Some of the questions are raised by the indictment itself, which offers full names for only three of the six suspects. Two suspects are listed only with a single name matched to a photograph.
The murky operations of the rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, add to the confusion. The FARC has been at war with the Colombian government for nearly 40 years and has more than 15,000 soldiers.
Vargas is the only suspect to be arrested so far.
The decision lets agents move Vargas to Washington for a bail hearing.
Vargas' attorney also challenged the indictment's reference to his using the alias Alfredo. Higgins said Alfredo was a rebel who was part of the group blamed for the murders but was killed about six months ago.
The FARC considered the three victims to be either U.S. military advisers or CIA agents, the indictment said. The kidnapped Americans were handed over to "El Marrano," who insisted the three were CIA agents using the school project as a front.
Terence Freitas, 24, of Los Angeles, Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, of New York City, and Lahe'ena'e Gay, 39, of Pahoa, Hawaii, were shot to death a week after they were forced into a commandeered taxi.
The bodies were dumped near the Venezuelan town of La Victoria across the Arauca River from Colombia on March 4, 1999. FARC leaders admit executing the three and blame a rogue commander.
The murders prompted the United States to suspend all contact with the leftist rebel group. The United States lists the FARC as an international terrorist organization.
Vargas is the first Colombian rebel ever to be extradited to the United States.
US government buys private databases of Venezuelan citizen details
Venezuela's Electronic News
Posted: Monday, June 02, 2003
By: Patrick J. O'Donoghue
Concern has been steadily growing in Venezuela and other Latin American countries about news that US Choice Point Co has been collecting databases on Latin American citizens to sell to the USA government.
According to a report issued by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic), the USA government has been purchasing electronic registers of more than 10 countries in the Hemisphere for around $11 million. The leak came out after declassified State documents linked the US Justice Department, Immigration Services (NS) with the Choice Point Company.
It has been learned that the Venezuelan Attorney General's Office and National Assembly are supposedly unaware of the situation and have not yet ordered an investigation.
Epic adviser, Christopher Hoofengale says the US government used Choice Point to obtain the registries as one way of avoiding legal problems regarding privacy laws, especially in the case of Venezuela, the special law against computer crimes, which penalizes unlawful collection of data with 4-8 years in prison.
Hoofengale maintains that it is basically a problem of corruption because despite the strict laws, people are selling and buying data in many Latin American countries.
Last year 12 persons were arrested in connection with a Venezuelan National Electoral College (CNE) database found in the possession of street hawkers.
In Mexico, Choice Point was subject to investigation after purchasing a copy of the electoral register, creating a minor scandal, which seems to be gathering into a storm, as more countries discover the depth and possible implications of the deal.
How US Paid for Secret Files on Foreign Citizens--Latin Americans furious in row over selling personal data
Published on Monday, May 5, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
by Oliver Burkeman in Washington and Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Governments across Latin America have launched investigations after revelations that a US company is obtaining extensive personal data about millions of citizens in the region and selling it to the Bush administration.
Documents seen by the Guardian show that the company, ChoicePoint, received at least $11m (£6.86m) last year in return for its data, which includes Mexico's entire list of voters, including dates of birth and passport numbers, as well as Colombia's citizen identification database.
Literature that ChoicePoint produced to advertise its services to the department of justice promised, in the case of Colombia, a "national registry file of all adult Colombians, including date and place of birth, gender, parentage, physical description, marital status, passport number, and registered profession".
It is illegal under Colombian law for government agencies to disclose such information, except in response to a request for data on a named individual.
One lawyer following the investigations described Mexican officials as "incensed", and experts said the revelations threatened to destroy fragile public trust in the country's electoral institutions. In Nicaragua, police have raided two firms believed to have provided the data, and the Costa Rican government has also begun an inquiry. Other countries involved include Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Argentina and Venezuela.
The identities of the firms supplying ChoicePoint with the data are unknown, since the company says its contracts ensure confidentiality, although it insists all the information was obtained legally.
Exactly how the US government is using the data is also unknown. But since it focuses so heavily on Latin America, it would appear to have vast potential for those tracking down illegal immigrants. It could perhaps also be used by US drugs enforcement agents in the region.
ChoicePoint, though, which is based near Atlanta, is far from unfamiliar to observers of the Florida vote of 2000 that decided the US presidency in George Bush's favor. Its subsidiary Database Technologies was hired by the state to overhaul its electoral registration lists - and ended up wrongly leading to the disenfranchising of thousands of voters, whose votes might have led to a different result.
Investigations in 2000 and 2001 by the Observer and the BBC's Newsnight program concluded that thousands of voters had been removed from the lists on the grounds that DBT said they had committed felonies, preventing them from voting. In fact, the firm had identified as "felons" thousands of people who were guilty of misdemeanors, such as, in at least one case, sleeping on a park bench.
Then it produced a revised list of 57,700 "possible felons", which turned out to be riddled with mistakes because it only looked for rough matches between names of criminals and names of voters. James Lee, a vice-president of ChoicePoint, told Newsnight that Florida, governed by Mr Bush's brother Jeb, had made it clear that it "wanted there to be more names [on the list] than were actually verified as being a convicted felon". Mr Bush's eventual majority in Florida was 537.
Since the election, ChoicePoint has been the beneficiary of a huge increase in the freedom of government agencies to gain access to personal data. The USA patriot act, passed after September 11, allows government investigators to gain access to more information on US citizens without a search warrant, and to see data on private emails with such a warrant but without a wiretap order. The act also means banks must make their databases accessible to firms such as ChoicePoint.
In Mexico, the president of the federal electoral institute, Jose Woldenberg, revealed that his investigators had talked to the Mexican company that said it paid a "third person" 400,000 pesos (£24,500) for a hard disk full of personal data drawn largely from the electoral roll. It sold this to ChoicePoint for just $250,000, indicating the huge profitability of ChoicePoint's contracts - last year's $11m payment was part of a five-year contract worth $67m.
"The companies had to know that it is forbidden to use the information in the electoral register for any other purpose than elections," said Julio Tellez, a specialist in Mexico's information laws at the Tec de Monterrey University. "It is a federal crime to misuse the information, and they did that by selling it and putting it in the hands of a foreign government."
Mr Tellez said he believed that this makes the companies and the US government liable to prosecution.
The sale of information from the electoral register is particularly devastating in Mexico, because the electoral institute enjoyed a close to unique reputation for honesty and transparency in a country plagued by corruption.
"We feel betrayed. The IFE [federal electoral institute] was the only Mexican organization we could trust," said Cesar Diaz, a Mexico City supermarket administrator whose feelings were echoed by many. "I mean, if we can't trust them who can we believe in? I think it will have repercussions in the next elections."
Britain's much stronger data-protection framework probably means ChoicePoint could not make similar wholesale purchases of databases from the UK, and a similar situation exists across the rest of the EU. But the Latin American states "don't have data protection on the level of Europe", said Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based pressure group which obtained the purchasing and advertising documents.
ChoicePoint was taking advantage of those more relaxed laws to profit from the US's "increasing reliance on private companies to obtain data on persons of interest to law enforcement", he said.
But the US government has shown itself eager to enhance the amount of data it can gather on people across the world, including those in the UK. In February, Washington announced that it would be seeking access to credit card details and other information on all travelers entering the US. Britain, too, is proposing laws which would give state agencies wide-ranging access to information regarding telephone and email use, though ministers insist their plans will not now include the content of such communications.
In a statement provided to the Guardian, ChoicePoint strongly denied breaking any laws and said it was cooperating fully with Mexican authorities. "All information collected by ChoicePoint on foreign citizens is obtained legally from public agencies or private vendors," the statement said.
The statement insisted that "ChoicePoint did not purchase election registry information and our vendor has verified that the information we purchased was not from the padron electoral [Mexico's central registry of electors]". But that claim is called into question by the company's advertising documents. Those documents, dated September 2001, explicitly boast that ChoicePoint can offer a "nationwide listing of all Mexican citizens registered to vote as of the 2000 general election - updated annually".
Asked how the US government is using the data, Greg Palmore, a spokesman for the bureau of immigration and customs, said it was helping to trace illegal immigrants but only if they were guilty of another crime. Asked to confirm whether the data was used by his bureau only to pursue criminals, he said: "Mainly."
ChoicePoint insists that it requires all its subcontractors to sign pledges that they are not breaking the law. But legal experts say that would offer it scant protection if the Latin American police inquiries were to result in others being convicted.
"If you know that a practice is actually illegal, you can't immunize yourself" with a pledge, said Mr Hoofnagle. "There's a strong principle in US law of being responsible for the actions of your agents."
Latin American fury as US buys information on millions
May 6 2003
Governments across Latin America have launched investigations after revelations that a United States firm is obtaining personal data about millions of citizens in the region and selling it to the US Government.
Documents show that the company, ChoicePoint, received at least $US11 million ($17.4 million) last year in return for its data, which includes Mexico's entire list of voters and Colombia's citizen identification database.
ChoicePoint literature advertising its services to the Department of Justice includes the promise of a "national registry file of all adult Colombians, including date and place of birth, gender, parentage, physical description, marital status . . . passport number, and registered profession".
It is illegal under Colombian law for government agencies to disclose such information, except in response to a request for data on a named individual.
A lawyer following the investigations described Mexican officials as incensed, and experts said the revelations threatened to destroy fragile public trust in electoral institutions.
In Nicaragua, police raided two firms believed to have provided the data, and the Costa Rican Government has also begun an inquiry.
Other countries involved include Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Argentina and Venezuela.
ChoicePoint, based near Atlanta, is well known to observers of the Florida vote of 2000 that decided the US presidency in George Bush's favour.
The state hired its subsidiary Database Technologies to overhaul its electoral lists - and ended up wrongly disenfranchising thousands of voters, whose votes might have led to a different result.
Since the election and the September 11 terrorist attacks, ChoicePoint has been the beneficiary of a huge increase in the freedom government agencies have to gain access to personal data, through the USA Patriot Act.
Asked how the US Government was using the data, a spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs said it was helping to trace illegal immigrants but only if they were guilty of another crime.
Asked to confirm whether the data was used by his bureau only to pursue criminals, he said: "Mainly."
Firm in Florida election fiasco earns millions from files on foreigners
Oliver Burkeman in Washington and Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Monday May 5, 2003
A data-gathering company that was embroiled in the Florida 2000 election fiasco is being paid millions of dollars by the Bush administration to collect detailed personal information on the populations of foreign countries, enraging several governments who say the records may have been illegally obtained.
US government purchasing documents show that the company, ChoicePoint, received at least $11m (£6.86m) from the department of justice last year to supply data - mainly on Latin Americans - that included names and addresses, occupations, dates of birth, passport numbers and "physical description". Even tax records and blood groups are reportedly included.
Nicaraguan police have raided two offices suspected of providing the information. The revelations threaten to shatter public trust in electoral institutions, especially in Mexico, where the government has begun an investigation.
The controversy is not the first to engulf ChoicePoint. The company's subsidiary, Database Technologies, was responsible for bungling an overhaul of Florida's voter registration records, with the result that thousands of people, disproportionately black, were disenfranchised in the 2000 election. Had they been able to vote, they might have swung the state, and thus the presidency, for Al Gore, who lost in Florida by a few hundred votes.
Legal experts in the US and Mexico said ChoicePoint could be liable for prosecution if those who supplied it with the personal information could be proven to have broken local laws. That raises the possibility that any person whose data was accessible to American officials could take legal action against the US government.
"Anybody who felt they were affected by this could take the US government to court," said Julio Tellez, an expert in Mexican information legislation at the Tec de Monterrey University. "We could all do it ... We are not prepared to sell our intimacies for a fistful of dollars."
How the US is using the information remains mysterious, although its focus on Latin America suggests obvious applications in targeting illegal immigrants. Whatever the reasons, its commitment to ChoicePoint is long-term: last year's $11m payment was part of a contract worth $67m that runs until 2005.
ChoicePoint denied breaking any laws. "All information collected by ChoicePoint on foreign citizens is obtained legally from public agencies or private vendors," it said. It also denied purchasing "election registry information" from Mexico.