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The story of the drug-running DEA snitch behind the web databases tracking our lives

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When journalist McKenzie Funk was 25 years old, he was in a movie with a friend.

MCKENZIE FUNK: And walking back, there were some college kids burning couches in the streets. And I said, hey; I'm a young journalist. I'm going to go check this out. Long story short, I got arrested because I was standing there. I got thrown in jail for the night. And, of course, I was never arraigned or prosecuted, and I honestly forgot about it.

SHAPIRO: More than a dozen years later, he went to apply for a program that lets you skip the lines at airports.

FUNK: And I had an interview with this customs officer, and he said, OK, so let's go through your form here. And you said you've never been arrested. Is that right? And I said, yep. That's right. You're sure about the answers to all one through three? And it came rushing back to me. I was like, oh, I have been arrested. I forgot. If that happened to me, someone who's had a lot of privilege in his life, what happens to everybody else with these small, black marks on their record when the record doesn't go away?

SHAPIRO: The internet remembers everything, even if we have forgotten - where we've lived, what we've bought, whether we've ever been convicted of a crime. So McKenzie Funk started to wonder, how exactly did we get here? Who started building the databases that store all that information? The answer took him back before Facebook, before the Department of Homeland Security, before the internet to a larger-than-life character named Hank Asher. McKenzie Funk's new book is called "The Hank Show: How A House-Painting, Drug-Running DEA Informant Built The Machine That Rules Our Lives." It describes Hank Asher as a young pilot in South Florida and the Caribbean who fell in with a group of smugglers and got into a lot of trouble.

FUNK: To get out of that, he made friends with F. Lee Bailey, the famous attorney. And Bailey saw that Asher knew everybody, and he saw that he could basically explain for the DEA, here's who the drug runners are; here are their planes; here are their boats, and that that was incredibly valuable. And I think that insight and, more specifically, the work with the DEA that allowed him to see the early computer systems that the DEA had - it gave him an edge.

SHAPIRO: He got his start building databases in the pre-internet days. So how did he actually get the information that went into this database?

FUNK: Well, Asher was in Florida for his adult life, and Florida is known as the Sunshine State. It's a place where public records are a public good, and they're given out freely - if not freely, cheaply. And so he used the open government of Florida to start getting these databases. He started with vehicle registrations, not just a few of them but everyone in the state. Then he got driver's licenses, and he went on from there. And so he built his empire on public records, on the information that state governments and local governments collect on all of us to do their job.

SHAPIRO: And when he was trying to sell access to the database, which ultimately made him a very rich man, talk about the demonstration he would do that would win people over 10 times out of 10.

FUNK: Oh, yeah. If anyone has ever done this on Google - and I think all of us have - it's search your own name and see what's out there. And that phenomenon was not something that could happen in the early '90s, when he was pushing this product. So every time, he would just go up to, say, a police chief and simply run it. And up would come everyone they knew, everyone they were related to, their phone numbers, their address history, any boats or cars they had - basically a dossier of their entire life.

SHAPIRO: I mean, you can just imagine people's jaws hitting the floor when he pulls out this trick in the days before Google.

FUNK: Yeah. And they were - you know, there was one story of them pulling up an address and showing that this chief of police who was standing there with his wife - that she had been married before. He said, what? That's not true. And then she's got red in the face, and she said, well, it is. And it's hard to conceive now, but it was a revelation. And for cops, for insurance companies and eventually pretty much every corporation you can imagine, this was gold.

SHAPIRO: What I couldn't understand is Hank Asher had a past. He'd never been convicted of a felony, but it seems plausible that he could have been. So why would he spend his life building a system that eliminates anonymity, that makes it impossible to run from your past?

FUNK: Well, I think there are multiple theories from the people who knew Asher best. One was simply he liked being at the center of things. He liked power. But more broadly, he had that past, and he wanted to redeem himself.

SHAPIRO: There are a few kind of this-changes-everything moments in the story, and one of them was the attacks of 9/11. What role did Hank Asher's database play after that day?

FUNK: Well, consider that many of the 9/11 hijackers had spent time in Florida, in South Florida, in places that Hank Asher knew and that his database has covered really well. And he was already in with the local police, and he'd just built this new system called Accurint, which people like me, investigative journalists, still use. And so he immediately began writing an algorithm to try to figure out who the hijackers could have been. This is before their names were publicly known, and he basically scored everybody's likelihood of being a terrorist. And if you think about the inputs, what was that at that time? Male, young, Muslim, recently arrived in the country - those were what had been described to me as the inputs - people who would have shared an address, people who just opened up a bank account, people with pilots' licenses. And so he went through the entire population, and he scored people's terrorist factor. And five of the hijackers were eventually on one of his lists, on the shortlist.

SHAPIRO: How many false positives did he get?

FUNK: It was at least a thousand false positives.

SHAPIRO: And so should we look at this and think, oh, he correctly identified five of the hijackers? Or should we look at this and think, he identified more than a thousand innocent people as potentially being terrorists?

FUNK: I think the fair answer is that we should look at systems like this as both. He did identify five of the hijackers, and it wowed investigators at the time. He also falsely identified or at least flagged for further investigation another thousand at least, and some of those people were deported. The question I have is not necessarily what did he do, but what did we do as a country and as a culture with things like this and systems like this? If a computer tells you something, you believe it.

SHAPIRO: If there had been no Hank Asher in the world, how different do you think our existence today would really be? I mean, billions of people have voluntarily given tons of identifying information to Facebook. And that database does not depend on Hank Asher's work, even if it does kind of mirror it.

FUNK: One thing I was reporting this book I had to struggle with was when I talked about privacy. People said, oh, yeah, Facebook, or, oh, yeah, the internet. And the important thing to understand about what Hank Asher and those of his era created are these databases that started way back when, and they haven't died. And a snapshot of someone's life that you can see on Facebook - you know, who their friends are - is nothing like seeing someone's address history, who they've lived with for years and years, where they've lived, what kind of neighborhood that was, what kind of crime that neighborhood has. All these little details that you accumulate in your whole life - those details are still with us. And that kind of information is a lot different than the snapshot that we can get from the internet. And so I do think the world would be different. How much of your past you're able to escape and move on from - that might be different, too.

SHAPIRO: McKenzie Funk's new book is "The Hank Show: How A House-Painting, Drug-Running DEA Informant Built The Machine That Rules Our Lives." Thanks a lot.

FUNK: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOSPHORESCENT SONG, "SONG FOR ZULA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.