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Matrix repositioned

Is a new multistate police database a tool for catching crooks or a system to spy on Americans? Straight answers are hard to come by.

The Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or the Matrix, is a federally funded database created by Boca Raton-based Seisint Inc. that gives police computerized access to huge swaths of records at their fingertips. Florida is where the system originated and is one of seven states using it.

In the past, Florida officials have assured those who have raised privacy concerns that the Matrix would contain only those public records that police normally utilize in routine criminal investigations, such as arrest records, motor vehicle data and property records. They have also promised that the Matrix would be used for crime-fighting purposes only and not for data-mining _ where a computer analyzes data from a variety of sources looking for anomalous patterns indicating suspicious activity.

But documents gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union suggest that the Matrix's intended uses are far more intrusive than the sales pitch to the public. Beyond saving police shoe leather, it appears the system will be used to try to discover potential terrorist activity from billions of bits of information on all of us. This kind of data-mining was repudiated by Congress when it shuttered the Pentagon's Terrorism Information Awareness program last year. Significant public resistance doomed the TIA program, which had promised to find terrorists in our midst by analyzing massive databases of personal information. Americans found the invasion of privacy too great and the security payoff too remote. But the Matrix may be an end run around Congress.

It has been developed with a $4-million grant from the Justice Department and the promise of another $8-million from the Department of Homeland Security. The FBI, Secret Service and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service assisted in its creation. The extent of federal involvement suggests that this goes beyond everyday policing.

Also, the ACLU has been able to determine that the Matrix will not be restricted to freely available public records, as was the initial claim, but will combine government databases with those owned by Seisint Inc. In a slide show on the Matrix, obtained from the Michigan Department of State Police, one slide boasts how the system will offer "20+ Billion Records From 100s of sources," including commercial databases.

Exactly what kinds of commercially collected information will be part of the Matrix is not known at this point. Public records requests to a number of states have either been ignored or incompletely answered. For example, the ACLU request for information from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is dated Oct. 20. To date, the organization has yet to receive a response.

What personal data are included in the Matrix? Precisely how is the system being used, and by whom? Right now, with the FDLE and other government agencies being unresponsive, there is no reason to trust that the Matrix is respecting our traditions of citizen privacy.