Derek Smith’s Brave New World

Derek Smith

Ten months have passed, and still the flow continues, an endless, nameless river of shattered dreams and vanished lives. Twice a month, a New York city police officer delivers the boxes to the Bode Technology Group, a forensic DNA laboratory in Springfield, Va. Most Americans have begun to put the raw anguish of the attacks behind them, but the hundreds of clear, orange-capped tubes packed in boxes still engender grief and determination among Bode’s forensic scientists. The tubes, labeled DM (“Disaster Manhattan”), contain charred and shattered bits of bone — “femur frag,” “bone humerus,” “bone rib,” “fibula” — painstakingly recovered by teams of pathologists and anthropologists working at Staten Island’s Fresh Kills’ landfill, the remains of that awful day, Sept.11.

Six hundred miles south, Derek V. Smith, president, chief executive officer and chairman of ChoicePoint, Bode’s corporate parent, paces his Alpharetta office, mind racing, ideas and concepts flying like sparks. Biometrics … DNA … data-analytics … identity theft. Information, he says, is key to preventing another Sept. 11 from occurring. “I have this incredible passion,” he tells a visitor, “to create a safer world.”

At first glance, Smith seems an unlikely zealot. Forty-seven years old, an avid golfer, he lives quietly in suburbia with his wife and two children.

He grew up on Long Island, played wide receiver at Penn State under coaching legend Joe Paterno and graduated with a degree in computer science, then earned a master’s degree in industrial management from Georgia Tech.

He has spent the last five years determinedly building ChoicePoint, a Georgia company spun off from Equifax in 1997 — a company whose 2001 annual report lists $655.9 million in net revenue and whose market capitalization topped $4 billion this year. ChoicePoint is an enterprise, analysts and shareholders will tell you, that is one of the great success stories of the last decade. Providing what the company calls “credential verification services” is the heart of the company’s business. In simplest terms, ChoicePoint works with corporations, government agencies and individuals to help them manage risk.

The Nest “Violated”

It’s not clear what is driving Smith, an exceedingly low-profile executive, to discuss his concerns, and his belief that ChoicePoint can spearhead a national debate on the use of new developments in information technology in the ongoing wars against terror, child abuse, violence, and crime. “Information is fundamentally the most powerful weapon to beat risk,” Smith says. “But in the past, it has driven economics, not safety and security.”

Perhaps it’s the 1,000 orange-capped tubes illuminated in the stark fluorescence of the “Bone Room” at Bode. Or the image of the burning towers emblazoned with the words “Always Remember” taped to the laboratory’s walls. Or the anthrax scare at his son’s middle school last fall. “They found some powder and all of a sudden the police, the fire department, everybody is there,” Smith says. “Last summer, the kids would have kicked it and put in on their shoes.” Or perhaps the accumulated burden of disturbing information that flows like virus in his blood: a recent ChoicePoint survey suggested 25 percent of pizza delivery drivers had been incarcerated in the four months preceding the study. “What pizza do you like?” Smith asks rhetorically. “At what price? Are you willing to take the risk associated with dealing with a company that doesn’t screen their drivers?”

ChoicePoint supplies “decision-making intelligence to businesses and government.” Its clients include Fortune 1000 companies, financial institutions, some 7,500 law enforcement agencies, even community organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America that attempt to screen convicted criminals and child molesters from their employment rolls. In a sense, the company is society’s ultimate search engine: 15 billion public records are stored in its databases. Odds are, if you’re being screened by a prospective employer for drug abuse, seeking insurance, applying for a loan or driver’s license, your financial and legal history, down to the apartments you’ve rented, are locked in ChoicePoint’s databases. “Information plays a vital role in helping society grant or revoke certain rights and privileges,” Smith says. “ChoicePoint doesn’t tell society what the rules should be. We create fundamental risk profiles that help society manage itself. Ultimately, that process will create huge consequences both positive and negative.”

Until Sept. 11, the debate over what some see as invasive new technologies — data-analytics, biometrics, genetic fingerprinting — and privacy concerns (the fear, for example, that genetic markers will be used to deny certain individuals medical coverage) had been waged on college campuses and think tanks by veteran law enforcement types like former New York City police commissioner Howard Safir and “privacy advocates” as disparate as Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, Phyllis Schlafly and the ACLU.

While that debate smoldered, Smith and ChoicePoint Chief Operating Officer Doug Curling busied themselves with a series of acquisitions and an ever-expanding array of products and services, fusing more than two dozen companies into an Information Age behemoth with nearly 5,000 employees, and a business model broad-based enough to have attracted The Home Depot’s Bernie Marcus, Wal-Mart CEO Tom Coughlin, Fleet Financial Group CEO Terrence Murray and Kenneth Langhorne, who also sits on the boards of GE and the New York Stock Exchange, to its board.

The rush of events changed all that. Smith originally wanted to carry his message to politicians, decision-makers and “thought-leaders,” but the anguish and soul-searching triggered by the terrorist attacks convinced him the issue is much more personal. “The audience is much broader now,” he says. “It’s the mothers of this country who are wrestling with threats, who feel their nest has been violated. I want to talk about ways to restore a sense of security to the home, the family and the community.”

The Concept of Identity

If ChoicePoint embodies Smith’s entrepreneurial brilliance, the burning towers of the World Trade Center were the realization of his worst fears. Before the attacks, Smith’s restless mind was ranging beyond marketplace challenges. Tom Bode, who founded the Bode Technology Group, says Smith is a visionary driven by “a desire to contribute something to society.” Howard Safir, a mentor, says Smith is haunted by the notion that evildoers — not just terrorists but rapists, thieves, white-collar criminals and child molesters — are moving easily and anonymously among us, obtaining employment, visas, driver’s licenses, credit cards, preparing to attack not only people and institutions, but the very concept of identity itself.

“The world didn’t change on Sept. 11,” Smith says. “We just became aware that we live in a world that is fundamentally risky.” Ironically, the hijackers made no attempt to disguise themselves. They used their own names to travel and transfer funds; they obtained driver’s licenses, credit cards, flying instruction. They were thieves masquerading as students and tourists. What they stole is as troubling as what they accomplished: identity. “In the end, it’s all about identity,” says Smith. “Today, we use digital representations of who we are — name, address, social security number, driver’s license. It’s become increasingly clear that identity is very vulnerable. You may not be what that digital identity represents you to be. The next major transformation is going to be biometric identity, which will tell us definitively, “This is the entity, the human being attached to all this information.”

Information, that endless stream of data flowing around us, Smith contends, poses no threat to a democratic society or Constitutional guarantees to privacy. Biometrics, the use of unique physical features — fingerprints, retinal scans, DNA typing — to establish identity, is simply technology’s next wave. The Constitution, to paraphrase Alan Dershowitz, guarantees privacy, not anonymity. Responsibly used, Smith believes, information technology is no Pandora’s box, but a shield that can enhance homeland security, reduce crime, safeguard children, protect the innocent, diminish risk everywhere. It is no coincidence that ChoicePoint is sitting on a mountain of data that can be mined, processed and delivered, for example, to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the INS, Interpol.

The list is endless; Smith’s point succinct: Had such a network been in place on Sept. 11, warnings would have flashed on computer screens at American Airlines and United Airlines ticket counters in Newark, Boston and Washington, D.C. “Knowing what we now know,” he says, “there’s no way any of those guys would have been allowed to get on a plane.”

Instead, a few months later, Derek Smith found himself face-to-face with the terrorists’ handiwork. ChoicePoint’s Bode Technologies is the largest private forensic DNA lab in the country. Last October, Bode was awarded a $12.5 million contract by the New York’s chief medical examiner to process up to 30,000 bone fragments recovered at the WTC site. The hope is that genetic information extracted from the fragments, compared with hair and other biological samples brought in by family members, will provide positive identification for more than a thousand victims still unaccounted for.

The Debate Over DNA

Bode is on the cutting edge of the greatest breakthroughs in forensic science since fingerprinting was developed in the UK almost a century ago. DNA evidence has identified the remains of Michael Blassic, Vietnam’s Unknown Soldier; it has solved one of the great mysteries of the 20th century — in 1994, the remains of Czar Nicholas II and four family members were positively identified using DNA evidence extracted from skeletal remains found in a mass grave outside Yekaterinburg in Siberia. Mitchell Holland, now Bode’s lab director, worked on both cases.

Howard Safir, Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner, helped convince Smith of DNA’s potential. “I’m the loudest voice in law enforcement calling for the extended use of DNA,” says Safir. “For the longest time, I was a voice crying in the wilderness. I know how powerful and useful it is. I told Derek ‘You need to buy Bode.'”

Over the last decade, convicted felon DNA databases have been established by the FBI and law enforcement organizations in all 50 states (the process involves nothing more invasive than a saliva swab). When such “genetic fingerprints” began being compared with hundreds of thousands of rape kits and other biological crime-scene evidence stored, in many cases for years, in police evidence lockers, “cold hits” (incontrovertible evidence placing suspects at crimes scenes) began registering. In Virginia, for example, hundreds of once-unsoluble cases have already been cleared; in Georgia, 87 suspects have been linked to unsolved crimes. Justice cuts both ways: Bode’s work with O.J. Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project has helped free more than 100 innocent men, 11 of them on death row. “DNA is a profound technology,” says Smith. “It will have very significant long term consequences on society.”

Safir and Paul Ferrara, the Virginia forensic lab director who pioneered the creation of DNA databases, now support legislation that will make DNA sampling of anyone arrested for a “fingerprintable” crime mandatory, an initiative guaranteed to outrage privacy advocates. Smith envisions parents voluntarily registering their children on a national DNA base — a practice more technologically advanced, but not much different, than inking a newborn’s footprint on a birth certificate — a database of police and firemen, similar to the armed forces’ system, to assist survivors in identifying loved ones in times of tragedy. “People had to bring in hairbrushes and toothbrushes and razor blades,” he says of the World Trade Center identification efforts, “hoping to find a piece of their loved ones.” He supports legislation mandating that DNA samples be taken from all foreigners entering the United States: “I don’t believe that’s an invasion of privacy for the privilege of coming into this country.”

ChoicePoint operates under the supervision of a privacy committee, an in-house oversight board that review deals and executive decisions. The “responsible use of information” is a fundamental plank in its business model. Nonetheless, mistakes have been made, particularly in the aftermath of dozens of ChoicePoint acquisitions. One buyout, Database Technologies, in Boca Raton, Fla., provided county electoral boards with a list of convicted felons to be used in purging voting lists during the last presidential election. Unfortunately, the state was Florida, the list was wildly inaccurate, and an estimated 8,000 citizens, many of them African-Americans, were deprived of their right to vote in the election — 15 times George Bush’s margin of victory over Al Gore. Federal and state investigations have since determined that DBT acted solely at the direction of state elections officials (who ignored safeguards suggested by the vendor) and did not conspire to disenfranchise voters.

Despite such problems, the public’s mood has shifted dramatically since Sept. 11. National identity cards linked to databases, once derided as Big Brother’s attempt to monitor the behavior and movements of ordinary citizens, have become the focus of a national debate with powerful forces aligned on both sides. A national survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies last fall saw “combating terrorism at home and overseas” register as the No. 1 priority for 71 percent of all those polled. The importance of “strengthening privacy laws” tumbled 21 percent for the period May through September.

Good news for Derek Smith, who is moving on to the next step: the obvious linkage of biometric identity and available data. “Is biometrics and DNA good or bad?” he asks. “Is it going to take society to an enlightened environment or some kind of police state? My conclusion is that information has more power to do good, provided we have safeguards to prevent evil. I want a debate on this.”

He’s not one to wait around or shirk controversy. “I’m not afraid of the questions,” he says. “There’s not some underlying ‘What if they find out about x or y?’ Society can draw the line. We’ll abide by whatever society rules…. At the same time, there’s not another company in America that has the opportunity we have. Some have more money, some can impact more people, but in terms of getting to the heart of the issue, we can, and will do it.”

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