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Seven-state info store a potent repository of personal data

Miami Herald | Jan 23 2004

NEW YORK - A federally funded crime database run by seven states, including Ohio, is looking increasingly to privacy advocates like a potent substitute for the data.m.ining program the Pentagon scrapped after public rebuke.

Law enforcement officials and the private company that manages the database, known as Matrix, say it merely streamlines police access to information about suspects that authorities have long been able to get from disparate sources.

But newly emerging facts about the program, including documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, indicate it could also be made to sift through vast stores of Americans' personal data - some 20 billion records - and proactively finger crime and terrorism suspects.

Combining state records with databases owned by Seisint Inc., Matrix details - among other things - the property, boats and Internet domains people own, their address history, utility connections, bankruptcies, liens and business filings, according to an August report by the Georgia state Office of Homeland Security.

The report, which was once posted on a state Web site, offers a broader glimpse of Matrix - short for the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange - than its guardians are generally willing to make public.

"This is a major program with very large ambitions, and it needs to be publicly examined. We shouldn't be forced to read tea leaves," said Barry Steinhardt, who heads the ACLU's technology and liberty program.

The August report touts Matrix's ability to display information quickly, along with pictures of some people on file, and perform analysis: "The user can easily see relationships between people, places and things that were previously impossible to discern."

"With minimal input and the push of a button, witnesses, associates, relatives and suspects can be identified and located," adds the report, which was cited in a December Supreme Court filing by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

References to Matrix's analysis capabilities also emerged in documents obtained by the ACLU under the open-records law in Pennsylvania, one of the participating states.

Among the files were two 2003 memorandums of understanding between Pennsylvania officials and Florida police that discussed how Matrix would be used for both criminal investigations and "intelligence purposes."

Also, the minutes of an October 2002 planning meeting attended by representatives of 12 states, the FBI and Seisint reveal new details about the involvement of the federal government, which seeded Matrix with $12 million and has access to it through the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Those minutes note that the FBI, Secret Service and two agencies now under Homeland Security - the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency - helped Florida officials craft data.m.ining software for Matrix.

In another link with the government, Seisint has former federal and state law enforcement officials on staff, including managing director Brian Stafford, former head of the Secret Service.

"This is the state version of TIA," Steinhardt said, referring to the Pentagon's Terrorism Information Awareness program, which was shelved last year after a public uproar and a Congressional inquiry.

The TIA and its original leader, Adm. John Poindexter, aimed to spot patterns in a much bigger pool of data than Matrix possesses, and people involved in Matrix reject any comparison. They say Matrix essentially is a revved-up search engine, not a surveillance tool.

Launched in response to Sept. 11, Matrix lets states share criminal, prison and vehicle information and cross-reference it with databases held by Seisint, including civil court records, voter registrations and address histories going back as long as 30 years.

Officials at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees the program, say the files do not include phone records, financial transactions or other material that would require a court order for law enforcement to see.

For now the project involves Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah. About 450 law enforcement agents are using the system, according to Clay Jester, Matrix coordinator for the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, the nonprofit group helping to expand the project from its original implementation in Florida.

Several other states considered the program before dropping out, citing concerns about privacy or the long-term costs. They include Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas.

"For me, the key issue is that the act of compiling even publicly available data on innocent Americans offends fundamental rights of privacy," California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said. "I feel there are more effective ways to protect the public."

But Jester says opponents of the program ignore the fact that private databases like Seisint's have become so powerful and widely accessible that police were bound to use them eventually.

An organized effort like Matrix is preferable, he argues, because it includes controls, privacy safeguards and penalties for misuse.

Even so, critics say Matrix goes well beyond traditional investigative tools.

"If you start moving information from one state agency to another, you're creating a profile of an individual, and a lot of laws restrict that," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "And if you go to the private sector for information, that's also raising significant issues."

To be sure, Matrix planners have taken steps to guard against misuse, the documents obtained by the ACLU show.

Its security and privacy policies, dated November and December 2003 and obtained in the Pennsylvania records, specify that Matrix can only be used in active criminal investigations or in responding to "a confirmed intelligence lead."

Also, investigators wanting to query Matrix have to be screened and trained in its use. As well, information from the database is supposed to be double-checked with the original source before "any official action" - such as an arrest or warrant issuance - is taken.

Matrix searches are logged and can be audited; investigators using the system inappropriately are subject to criminal charges. Jester said those rules "absolutely" apply to federal authorities as well.

The federal government's use of the system remains something of a mystery. Jester says the FBI has access through state task forces that it joins on certain cases, but he said he did not believe the Department of Homeland Security has tapped it yet.

A Homeland Security spokesman did not return calls seeking comment. A Justice Department spokeswoman said she could not immediately comment.

With such questions still looming, Steinhardt and others demand much more clarity about Matrix.

Even Pennsylvania officials turned over only a small portion of the records the ACLU requested. The ACLU is appealing and has filed requests with several other states, as has The Associated Press.

"Who's really pulling the strings and funding the program and creating its contours," Steinhardt said, "are answers only hinted at so far."
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