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

Hank Asher, pictured here in 2011.
Eliot J. Schechter/ Bloomberg via Getty Images
Hank Asher, pictured here in 2011.

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
St. Martins Press
The cover of Funk's latest book.

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:

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

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

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. contributed to this story

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Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.