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Police database called intrusive by rights group

Gannett News Service | Jan 02 2004

WASHINGTON — Al Nelson had no idea police were watching him last April when he allegedly tried to scam an elderly woman into paying him $2,800 for spraying bogus sealant on the roof of her Tampa, Fla., home.

As Nelson and his partner shouted demands at the woman, police and an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement moved in and arrested both men.

“They were shocked,” recalled agent Dennis Russo.

Russo was in the right place at the right time because of a powerful tool called MATRIX, for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. The Intranet system combines a variety of public and law enforcement databases, allowing law enforcement agents to quickly search addresses, Social Security numbers, credit card records, criminal histories, drivers license files, property records and other databases to quickly track down suspects.

But MATRIX, which is being tested by eight states — including Michigan — as part of a pilot program, is opposed by members of civil liberties groups who say its purpose is largely undefined. They note that MATRIX offers unprecedented access to information about average citizens.

“I think it is a dangerous system,” said Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil liberties group in Washington, D.C. “You could be looking at purely lawful conduct, trying to infer illegal intent from legal behavior.”

MATRIX was conceived as a tool to fight terrorism after the September 11 attacks. The plane hijackers were able to avoid detection largely because law enforcement officials had no way to rapidly compile and share what they knew about the men.

But it quickly became clear that MATRIX had broad applications for law enforcement agencies across the country.

The pilot program is financed by $12 million in grants from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The program is scheduled to end in November.

Its goal: to link public and law enforcement databases across jurisdictions and states to ease investigations of criminals ranging from sex predators to terrorists.

“It is a powerful system. Not scary, not frightening, but much more efficient,” said Bill Shrewsbury, a former cop and now vice president of Seisint Inc., in Boca Raton, Fla., the company that developed the system. “Law enforcement has got to have a tool to do this job.”

Civil libertarians say the same efficiency that makes MATRIX so effective in catching suspects like Nelson also could be used improperly.

“MATRIX can be used cut off from any particular suspicion,” Dempsey said.

He said MATRIX recalls the defunct Total Information Awareness network at the Pentagon. Congress cut off money for the program after it was harshly criticized as a potential threat to privacy rights.

Indeed, some states declined to participate in the MATRIX pilot program based on similar concerns.

But the system’s creator said those objections are baseless.

“MATRIX has been characterized as ‘Big Brother,’ ” Seisint vice president Shrewsbury said. “This stuff we have is nothing more than what law enforcement has had access to for decades.”
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