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Privacy advocates voice concerns over database

A federally funded crime database run by seven states is looking increasingly to privacy advocates like a potent substitute for the data-mining 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 of the ACLU.

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 apparently can access it through the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Those minutes show 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-mining software for Matrix.

"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 ACLU really doesn't know what it is and what it isn't," said Bill Shrewsbury, a Seisint vice president and former DEA and Florida state police agent. "The Matrix does not make any predictive analysis of anything. It is not an intelligence database. We do not put raw intelligence into it. We do not have access to that."

Launched in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, 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.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which oversees the program, says the files do not include phone records, financial transactions or other material that would require a court order.

For now the project involves Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah. About 450 law enforcement agents are using the system, said 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.

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