San Diego A few weeks ago, some folks in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho got calls from Calgary Herald reporters informing them that Axciom DataQuick, a San Diego-based company, had given 200 convicts in several Canadian prisons access to their addresses, marital status, and phone numbers.
According to the Calgary Herald, the response to these surprise calls wasn't overwhelmingly positive. Axciom DataQuick wasn't too thrilled either.
The 20-year-old company, in addition to warehousing data for other businesses, makes "tens of millions of dollars" each year by scouring public records in 43 states for mortgage and deed information, which it then organizes and sells, for mailing lists and other purposes, to clients as small as individual realtors and as large as AT&T. Of the 14 major U.S. companies that deal in information of this type, Axciom DataQuick is in the top five. Most of its data entry, according to John Karevoll, the company's PR rep, isn't done at Canadian prisons but at its Mission Valley office, not far from the Union-Tribune building.
Karevoll expresses what sounds like sincere dismay that the Calgary Herald's June 13 article gave the public a less-than-favorable impression of Axciom DataQuick.
The "outraged Americans" quoted in the Calgary Herald's story said things such as, "I don't know how they got my name, but I'm going to find out," and "I don't like this at all." One woman identified as "Maria, a Los Angeles-area mother who asked that her real name not be published," responded with a dramatic, if self-defeating, admission: "I've already been victimized by a crime. My children and I were forced into a vault with a gun to my head during a bank robbery, and now this. I am really amazed that people can know this much about me. I feel victimized that someone is privy to this information."
There would seem to be a very real question as to why someone so concerned with privacy would, apropos of an unrelated query, volunteer to a stranger -- albeit a Canadian reporter -- that she and her children had been forced at gunpoint into a bank vault. Maria's response would suggest that individuals, as well as large corporations, have difficulty keeping personal information from becoming public. This was one irony the Calgary Herald seemed unwilling to consider. Another was that the paper, in a kind of direct-marketing journalism, used phone numbers obtained by Axciom DataQuick to pursue a story that ostensibly decried the use of such information.
John Karevoll does not see the humor in these ironies. At least not now. He can explain everything.
"We were trying to be good guys. We were trying to be a responsible corporation. But let me first state, and make absolutely clear, that all of the information in question is a matter of public record. Anyone can have access to it.
"Several months ago we got involved with a Canadian prison-system program that trains inmates in job skills like data entry. Apparently, Canada has a low recidivism rate, and at least part of the reason why is that its prisons try to give prisoners job skills.
"Not just anyone is allowed to take part in the program. There are several very fine filters candidates must pass through. They can't, for example, be convicted of a violent crime outside or inside prison. The screening process is very careful. And the jobs they are given are highly prized within the prison system. It's very hard to get into the program.
"At this point we're just guessing it was someone not accepted into the program who contacted the Calgary Herald."
The Calgary Herald's story does, in fact, refer to a pseudonymous source called "Joe," whom the paper identifies as a "former inmate." Without explaining why Joe was qualified or felt moved to comment on the data-entry-by-prisoners issue, the Calgary Herald quotes Joe as saying, "I have kids of my own and wouldn't want some of those people knowing anything about me -- especially my address."
There would seem to be a very real question as to why the Calgary Herald, which appears to believe that prisoners are by nature untrustworthy, would use a pseudonymous former inmate as a credible source in a story about the questionability of prisoners being given access to public-record information. With this final irony, the story might appear to have come full circle.
But not quite.
Beth Givens of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearing House, a watchdog group concerned with information-age privacy infringement, sees the Calgary Herald story as one more example of how things have gotten out of hand, and she's none too keen on John Karevoll's explanation either.
"Is it the responsibility," she asks, "of American corporations to help Canadian prisoners reform? Besides, we've already had horror stories about prisoners processing information."
Givens cites instances of American prisoners who, while processing data like the Canadians working for Axciom DataQuick, have committed "identity fraud" with a little help from outside accomplices. She brings up the hair-raising case, publicized by ABC's Prime Time Live, of a middle-aged Ohio woman who received a lurid, unwanted letter from a convicted rapist in Texas who'd come across her personal stats while entering consumer survey data for a company named Metromail.
Givens also locates irony in the Calgary Herald story.
"In December 1997, Axciom DataQuick was one of a group of companies that deals in this type of information to voluntarily sign a self-regulation agreement with the Federal Trade Commission to protect consumer privacy.
"When you hear about the Calgary Herald story, you have to ask, is Axciom DataQuick's privacy-consciousness just skin deep? The only reason they would have farmed out their data-entry work to Canadian prisoners was because there was some financial benefit to it."
John Karevoll sees matters otherwise. The cost difference between doing the data entry in-house and having Canadian inmates do it was, he says, insignificant.
"In this age of awareness about corporate responsibility, we thought we were doing a good thing. But, like the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. We thought we were doing something good, only this time it turned around and bit us on the butt."