The story of the drug-running DEA informant behind 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

Hank Asher, pictured here in 2011.

Eliot J. Schechter/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

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

Who is he?

  • Once a young pilot in South Florida and the Caribbean, Asher fell in with a group of drug smugglers in the 1980s and got into a lot of trouble (though was never convicted of a felony.)
  • Asher sought help from F. Lee Bailey, a well-known attorney, who saw how Asher’s network of connections and understanding of the smuggling world could help the DEA.
  • Asher became an informant. And in turn, he then gained insight into how the early DEA computer systems worked.

What’s the big deal? As explained in journalist McKenzie Funk’s new book, The Hank Show, Asher took what he knew about computers and compiling information on people and then applied his own business acumen to the concept.

  • That eventually snowballed into an idea to collect and monetize a database of people’s information.
  • Funk explains that Asher started out in Florida, collecting the state’s entire public records of vehicle registrations, drivers licenses, and all other kinds of other information.
  • He eventually sold access to those databases to police forces, insurance companies, and other corporations that benefitted from having detailed information on the masses.

Want more on American politics? Listen to the Consider This episode on what comes next for Republicans in the House after ousting McCarthy.

The cover of Funk’s latest book.

St. Martins Press

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St. Martins Press

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

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

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.

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, “Well, 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.

Here’s how Asher used his database following the 9/11 attacks:

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 databases 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 have 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.

[But] he also falsely identified, or at least flagged for further investigation, another 1,000 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.

This is Funk describing what the world might’ve looked like without Asher:

The important thing to understand about what Hank Asher and those of his era created are these databases that started way back when, 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.

So, what now?

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

Learn more:

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


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