Privacy

Hank Asher’s Startup TLO Knows All About You


If the modern world feels like a place where it’s difficult to hide, Hank Asher is one reason. After selling a house-painting business and going broke, Asher turned to technology in the early 1990s. These days he’s best known as the pioneer of the data-fusion industry, a part of the tech world that involves connecting thousands of public and commercial databases and making their information easily searchable. “He’s kind of a legend” among those who use investigative data tools, says Greg Lambert, who co-founded a legal-tech blog and runs the library in the Houston office of law firm King & Spalding.

Asher’s latest company is called TLO—as in The Last One he plans to launch. Developed initially to help cops catch child predators, TLOxp offers trillions of records on individuals and businesses from about 100,000 sources of data. Lawyers, fraud investigators, debt collectors, and others use the system to find a person’s employers, co-workers, education history, mobile-phone numbers, liens, car titles, and more. Even scraps of data can lead to an information trove. Feed TLOxp an age range, a first name, and a few Zip Codes, for instance, and it’ll spit out a list of people that fit all the attributes. It also grabs the public information posted on social-media sites like Facebook, says Martha Barnett, a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight who serves as TLO’s chief privacy officer.

TLOxp is faster, more accurate, and more thorough than any of his previous efforts, says Asher, who has started and cashed out of two prior data-fusion companies: Database Technologies, which ChoicePoint bought for $462 million in 2000, and Seisint, sold to Reed Elsevier’s LexisNexis unit for $775 million in 2004. TLOxp has “100 times the power that I had with my last previous invention,” Asher says. The company charges its 17,700 subscribers 25¢ for a simple search and up to $5 for advanced ones.

Asher’s previous products were regularly used by law enforcement to find suspects. The technology helped identify associates of the 9/11 hijackers and played “an important role” in catching John Allen Muhammad, the sniper who terrorized the D.C. area in 2002, according to Salvadore Hernandez, a private investigator who was then an FBI agent. In 2003 Asher demonstrated Matrix, a database tool from Seisint, for Vice-President Dick Cheney. Afterward, the Homeland Security Dept. granted Matrix $8 million to continue its development.

Though TLOxp is too new to have attracted the scrutiny of privacy advocates—it came out of preliminary development in May, and Asher says a “marketing blitzkrieg” is planned—it’s likely to displease them, if history is any guide. Because Matrix queries returned a list of people who fit a set of attributes, including innocent names, a 2004 American Civil Liberties Union report called it a “body blow to the core American principle that the government will leave people alone unless it has good reason to suspect them of wrongdoing.” At the time, Seisint countered that Matrix simply made information already available to police more easily searchable, but the program was discontinued due to privacy concerns. “If you’re using data for a good purpose, I don’t think people will object to it,” says Asher.

At TLO, he restricts his customers to those he considers “good”—marketers and snoops need not apply—and conducts background checks on prospective subscribers. TLO also audits searches to make sure people are using its tools for legitimate purposes instead of, say, to spy on exes. “I am more restrictive than the law is,” says Asher. “Make that ‘much more restrictive.’ ”

TLO, based in Boca Raton, Fla., makes its software available for free to law enforcement; almost 88,000 investigators and prosecutors in 50 states and 39 countries use it, according to the company. The police have access to data that private citizens can’t legally see. TLO’s Child Protection System monitors file-sharing sites and other online sources for computers that host child pornography. Although Asher won’t go into detail about how the technology works, law enforcement officials say a TLO search is often able to provide enough evidence and identifying information for police to obtain a search warrant and apprehend a suspect. Greg Schiller, a prosecutor in Palm Beach County, Fla., says that when a child pornography arrest is aided by certain TLO software, “we leave the house with the images and the bad guy in hand 95 percent of the time.”

Asked whether the commercial version of TLOxp also can be used to monitor Internet activity, Asher pauses. “That leaves a bad taste in my mouth to think of it that way,” he says. But can it? “There is no way that we would use that tool for a commercial purpose.”

The bottom line: TLO has trillions of records about individuals and businesses. Its search capabilities may make privacy advocates uneasy.

Woolner is a former Bloomberg columnist and reporter, now a freelance writer in Savannah. She can be reached at awoolner@mindspring.com.

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