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The government wants your information - and so do thieves

Portland Press Herald | March 16 2005

Some companies are working on technology that would allow your toilet to analyze your urine to see if you're sick.

The government, at the same time, is trying to expand a new, space-age program called Matrix, the point of which is to collect bunches of data about you to see if you're a terrorist.

Both ideas slip into that "too much information" category.

What, you may ask in Keanu-esque fashion, is the Matrix?

Matrix, or Multi-state Anti-TerroRism Information eXchange, is run by a Florida company, Seisint Inc., for a network of participating state governments. It collects information from government and commercial databases to look for "patterns" that could mean trouble of the terrorist kind.

It's certainly a good idea to connect criminal databases to make it easier for law enforcement officials to find the bad guys - but this system ventures into data mining.

Only four states are currently participating - Florida, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Ohio - and Michigan recently made the right decision to pull out of the program.

The Matrix, excepting its fancy Hollywood name, looks suspiciously similar to a trashed government program called Total Information Awareness. That program, which sought to compile a massive database that included credit card purchases, travel information and even e-mail messages, was nixed by Congress as too intrusive.

Whereas TIA was a nationwide program, Matrix is only operating in states that choose to have it. As the ACLU puts it, TIA was Big Brother, Matrix is Little Brother.

Don't think that makes it less scary.

Matrix creators, the American Civil Liberties Union says, won't specify exactly what information is being collected except to say it includes government and commercial data.

A New York Daily News story said it could include marriage and divorce records, real estate purchases, arrest records, hunting licenses and even pictures of neighbors and business associates.

What else?

Can the government really use all of the information it seeks? Perhaps the government could get out of the Big Brother business and into the Nagging Mother business. It could analyze our grocery receipts, for instance, and send us annoying little messages: "Pardon us, Mrs. Jones, but that's your third bottle of wine this week. Are you having a party?"

So, what's the problem with sharing your information if you're not doing anything wrong?

For one thing, no one can guarantee this information won't be filched by hackers.

Did the name Seisint sound familiar? It should. The Matrix operator, owned by Lexis Nexis, was hacked last week. The names, addresses, Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers of 32,000 people were stolen. As if to make us feel better, Lexis Nexis' parent company, Reed Elsevier, said no credit reports, financial information or medical data were stolen.

See? Nothing to worry about.

The ACLU's Web site said Seisint kept the system's data in a room "sealed by biometric locks" and "watched over by Florida police."

Guess what, everyone? Hackers gain access to databases not with special hacker superpowers or expensive underground equipment, but with the ability to charm legitimate system users out of their passwords and user names, or the ability to fake their way in some other way. ChoicePoint - another data collection firm that was hacked this year - sold the personal information of 145,000 consumers to identity thieves posing as legitimate business officials.

Congress is working on boosting protections, but your personal information is one human error away from being stolen.

So, what if some of your information got into the wrong hands? What if terrorist activity was conducted using your identity?

Well, could you prove that you didn't do it?

Forget identity theft for a minute and consider simple cases of mistaken identity.

The film "Brazil," a 20-year-old prescient British satire, illustrates this when everyman Archibald Buttle is arrested by the ominous Ministry of Information Retrieval. The ministry was actually looking for Archibald Tuttle, who was wanted for "freelance subversion."

That's another problem: Are we sure our dear leaders are searching these databases with a uniform definition of "terrorism" in mind?

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