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The story of the DEA informant behind the tracking databases: NPR

Hank Asher, pictured here in 2011.

Eliot J. Schechter/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Eliot J. Schechter/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Hank Asher, pictured here in 2011.

Eliot J. Schechter/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You may not know Hank Asher. But you will recognize how his creation and monetization of online databases helped change modern life.

Who is he?

  • A former young pilot in South Florida and the Caribbean, Asher fell in with a drug gang in the 1980s and got into a lot of trouble (although he was never convicted of a crime).
  • Asher enlisted the help of F. Lee Bailey, a well-known attorney, who saw how Asher’s network of connections and understanding of the world of smuggling could help the DEA.
  • Asher became an informant. And in turn, he then learned how the DEA’s early computer systems worked.

What is the problem ? As journalist McKenzie Funk’s new book explains, The Hank ShowAsher took what he knew about computers and compiled information about people, then applied his own business sense to the concept.

  • This eventually gave rise to the idea of ​​collecting and monetizing a database of information about people.
  • Funk says Asher started in Florida, collecting the state’s entire public records for vehicle registrations, driver’s licenses and all sorts of other information.
  • He eventually sold access to these databases to police forces, insurance companies and other companies that benefited from detailed information on the masses.

Want to know more about American politics? Listen to the Consider this episode on what awaits Republicans in the House after McCarthy’s ouster.

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The cover of Funk’s latest book.

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Saint-Martin Press

What did Funk discover? Funk spoke to All things Considered host Ari Shapiro about Asher’s empire and how the databases he created helped transform modern life.

Here’s Funk describing the demo Asher would do for people by trying to get them to pay for access to his database:

If anyone has ever done this on Google – and I think we all have – it’s to search for your own name and see what’s out there. And this phenomenon was not something that could have happened in the early 90s when he was marketing this product.

So every time he would just go to, let’s say, a police chief and just direct him. And in came everyone they knew, everyone they were related to, their phone numbers, their address history, any boats or cars they owned – basically a record of their entire life.

There was a story where they found an address and showed that this police chief who was standing there with his wife – that she had once been married. He said, “Well, that’s not true.” And then she got red in the face, and she said, “Well, it is.” And it’s hard to fathom now, but it was a revelation. And for the cops, for the insurance companies, and ultimately for almost any business you can imagine, it was gold.

Here’s how Asher used his database after the September 11 attacks:

Consider that many of the 9/11 hijackers had spent time in Florida, South Florida, in places that Hank Asher knew and his databases covered very well.

And he was already in the local police force, and he had just built this new system called Accurint, which people like me – investigative journalists – still use. So he immediately began writing an algorithm to try to determine who the hijackers might have been.

This was before their names were publicly known, and he basically assessed the likelihood that everyone was a terrorist. And if you think about inputs, what was it at that time? Men, young people, Muslims, recently arrived in the country, these are what people described to me as entries, people who shared an address, people who had just opened a bank account, people who had a pilot’s license.

And so he went through the entire population, and he identified the terrorist factor of the people. And five of the hijackers ended up on one of his lists, on the restricted list.

(But) he also falsely identified, or at least flagged for further investigation, at least 1,000 other people, and some of those people were deported. The question I’m asking myself isn’t necessarily what happened he do, but what have we done as a country and as a culture with things like this? And in systems like this, if a computer tells you something, you believe it.

Here’s Funk describing what the world might have looked like without Asher:

The important thing to understand about what Hank Asher and those of his era created are these databases that started a long time ago, they are not dead.

And a snapshot of someone’s life that you can see on Facebook – you know, who their friends are – has nothing to do with the address history of a person, who they lived with for years and years, where she lived, in what kind of neighborhood. that was what kind of crime this neighborhood has.

All these little details that you accumulate throughout your life, these details are always with us. And this type of information is very different from the snapshot we can get on the Internet. And so I think the world would be different. How much of your past you are able to escape and move on from – this can also be different.

And now ?

  • Asher, considered by some to be the “father of data fusion,” died in 2013. But finding every address registered to your name will live forever on the Internet.
  • The Hank Show is available now.

Learn more:

The McKenzie Funk interview was conducted by Ari Shapiro, produced by Matt Ozug and edited by Sarah Handel.


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