ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Precision and Privacy

Searching for Shane Harris.

A few months ago, I had a cancer scare. A letter arrived at my home in Washington from a "lymphoma follow-up research nurse" with the National Institutes of Health. "Dear Mr. Harris," she began. "I am contacting patients who participated in a study at the [NIH] with Dr. Dan Longo several years ago. I would like to speak with you about your current health status." That was it.

Now, you probably don't know much about me. I'm 31. I work out three times a week. My doctor wants me to lower my cholesterol-I blame my genes-and other than a bout of stomach flu when I was 6, I've never been hospitalized. So you can appreciate my alarm when a researcher asked my "health status." I exacerbated my anxiety by looking up Dan Longo-he's an eminent authority on tumors, and Good Housekeeping named him one of the "Best Cancer Doctors in America." Great.

My mind raced to determine how the NIH found out I had cancer. One possibility: In 1999, fresh out of college and saddled with a mediocre dental care plan, I participated in an NIH study on wisdom tooth extraction. The government yanked my impacted molars for free and I let them test some pain medications and take a jaw tissue sample. I reasoned that I must have signed a consent form that let Dr. Longo use the tissue to test for genetic cancer markers. Maybe I had come up positive.

Calmer heads assured me that I was overreacting. I called the nurse. "Did you participate in a study with Dr. Longo in 1993?" she asked. 1993? "Well, I was in high school at the time, so no. I would remember that."

"Well, then, we're looking for another Shane Harris," she said. Apparently, someone with my name did participate, but the telephone number NIH had on file had been disconnected. So, the nurse looked up every Shane Harris in Washington, using the online White Pages, and sent them identical letters.

I was safe. The nurse thought that the wisdom teeth study wasn't related. But this was a good story. What are the lessons for the intelligence community? I wondered. (No, really, I did.) For starters, as anyone who works with terrorist watch lists knows, a little information can be dangerous. Armed with only a name, agencies risk identifying the wrong people as threats to national security. Maybe you think the FBI and intelligence agencies don't use the White Pages, or credit reporting agencies, to track people. Well, they do, and so I checked my credit report. That's another story, but I found at least a dozen errors, including addresses I've never lived at and aliases I've never used.

A little information also can breach people's privacy. I now know there's a Shane Harris, currently or formerly of Washington, sought by a cancer doctor. And possibly every other Shane Harris in Washington knows this. I checked the White Pages. There are at least five of us. I have the only listed, current phone number.

I know that the NIH isn't the FBI or the CIA. (That's another story, too.) But doesn't my experience demonstrate how someone in government could cause a lot of trouble with just a little information? Intelligence and security agencies ought to take note. Many of the databases they're using to track down people are neither foolproof nor accurate. And imprecise information leads down paths that don't have happy endings-for anyone.

Maybe my "cancer scare" was benign. But I was frightened. And worse, I'm not sure the person Dr. Longo wants to talk to even knows. Shane, if you're reading this, call the doctor. I have his number.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.

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