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ChoicePoint buys other kinds of data from private sources: identity information from credit reports; product warranties and customer surveys; some phone records. They even maintain a retail industry blacklist of employees caught shoplifting.

If the company's 250 terabytes of data were printed on ordinary paper and the pages laid end to end, says Morrison, "it would extend 21 million miles. That's roughly 77 round trips to the moon."

That number grows every day. Around the clock, rivers of new and updated information about Americans flow into computer servers at ChoicePoint and other data companies. At the same time, many hundreds of ChoicePoint's customers may be looking at chunks of that data as they request it from their far-flung computers.

Every time you apply for a job, order clothing from a catalog, or get credit, it's likely that ChoicePoint or one of its competitors is helping to grease the process, or stop it cold. The data companies do so by zipping information about you to the company you're dealing with, often within a split second.

Increasingly, ChoicePoint's clients include law enforcement and national security officials. In some ways, it serves as a private intelligence operation for the government.

Leaving through ChoicePoint's lobby, you pass an award prominently displayed on the wall. It is a Federal Bureau of Investigation letter of appreciation that ChoicePoint got for "exceptional service in the public interest," dated September, 2001.

ChoicePoint and other data companies, including Hank Asher's Seisint, donated their services to the government in the days after 9/11. But those informal relationships soon gave way to contracts. In ChoicePoint's case, a $67 million deal with the Justice Department. The company's profits soared in the year after 9/11, and so did the salary of its Chief Executive, Derek Smith. Smith was paid $20 million in 2002, a 50 percent raise over the previous year.

In a culture that cherishes independence, autonomy and privacy, there's been surprisingly little meaningful debate about these new partnerships.

Continue to Part 5