Author says collecting data has become a priority

July 10, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE


President Dwight Eisenhower warned in the early 1950s about a military-industrial complex.

Author Robert O'Harrow Jr. in "No Place to Hide," his first book, warns of a new security-industrial complex that affects nearly all aspect of our daily lives.

O'Harrow, 44, of Arlington, Va., a special projects reporter for The Washington Post, was at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown Saturday signing his book, which came out in February.

Published by Free Press, a trademark of Simon & Schuster, O'Harrow's 300-page book, plus nearly 50 pages of notes, relies heavily on more than a year of personal research plus his own numerous Washington Post stories on privacy and technology. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work at the newspaper.


O'Harrow spent a year, from the spring of 2003 to the following spring, doing research for the book.

He received an advance from the publisher during the year, and the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting paid his travel expenses.

According to the cover of O'Harrow's book, the center exposes injustices and abuses of power by investing in promising news stories at their early stages.

O'Harrow's book also has been the subject of a "Peter Jennings Journal" on ABC and a one-hour National Public Radio program.

O'Harrow said he knocked on doors, spent days with sources learning what they knew and used the Freedom of Information Act to get information during his year of research.

His investigation, he said, shined the light on a government that doesn't want this stuff raised. If you raise it, it will hurt homeland security, they said.

"Private companies are able to collect more data now than in any time in history," O'Harrow said. They get data every time someone calls an 800 number to buy something, he said.

"They know when you call and they can associate your phone number to your household, who lives in it, what your neighborhood is like," he said.

Governments - state, local and federal - sell information they receive through routine transactions with people to private companies who amass it, O'Harrow said.

"When you use your cell phone the phone company knows where you are and when," according to a description of the book on its cover. "If you use your grocery card, your grocery and prescription purchases are recorded, profiled and analyzed. Almost anyone can buy a dossier on you, including anything it takes to commit identify theft ..."

The information industry, especially the biggest companies, have become partners with the federal government, he said.

The government, because of federal privacy laws, cannot get the kind of information on people that is available to the private sector, he said.

There has been a data revolution since Sept. 11, O'Harrow said. Some data-collecting companies have gotten so big that they now are wedded to the government. When the government can't get the information it needs, it goes to private companies, he said.

"We're creating a new source of power," O'Harrow said. "Few (people) disagree that we have a very secret government. It's cloaked in secrecy and it relies on companies for information that have no accountability. It's a cocktail for less and less privacy."

He said William Safire, the columnist for The New York Times, said "No Place to Hide" is to privacy protection what Rachel Carlson's "Silent Spring" was to the environment.

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