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Matrix database divides states over privacy concerns

Sunday, February 1, 2004

NEW YORK -- Although privacy worries led several states to pull out of a federally funded crime and terrorism database project, others are actively considering joining and thereby sharing information on their citizens, The Associated Press has learned.

Mark Zadra, chief investigator for Florida state police, which runs the Matrix project, said organizers have given presentations to more than 10 Northeastern and Midwestern states in recent weeks, arguing at each stop that the database is an invaluable law enforcement tool.

Officials in Iowa and North Carolina said Friday that they are exploring the system. And documents obtained through a public-records request in Florida indicate Arizona and Arkansas also may have interest in the quick-access information repository, which combines state records with 20 billion pieces of data held by a private company.

For now, Matrix -- short for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange -- involves Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan.

Utah's governor said Thursday that she was halting the state's participation, which was launched under her predecessor, and appointing a panel to examine security and privacy issues.

Another state once involved, Georgia, said Friday it is now dropping out completely -- after the AP confronted officials with documents indicating the state was continuing to participate despite a public proclamation to the contrary in October from Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Law enforcement officials say Matrix is an ultra-efficient way for investigators to get information about suspects that authorities previously had to obtain from disparate sources. They insist it includes only public records and does not make predictions about crime or terrorism.

But privacy advocates say Matrix gives law enforcement too much access to private details on millions of people, resembling the Pentagon terrorism data-mining program that drew public rebuke and lost Congressional funding last year.

Guessing at expansion

The likelihood of Matrix expansion remains hard to gauge.

Bill Shrewsbury, a vice president at Seisint Inc., the company that maintains the database, said he expects five or six more states to join the program, though he would not specify which ones.

"I've never shown it to any law enforcement people who didn't say: 'My goodness, this is unbelievable technology. It makes our job so much easier,"' said Shrewsbury, a former agent with Florida state police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

He added, however, that if too much controversy follows the project, "all bets are off."

The minutes of a Matrix board meeting held Nov. 5 in Atlanta show the attendance of representatives from the seven states participating in Matrix at the time, as well as the federal departments of Homeland Security and Justice, and four other states -- Arizona, Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia.

Officials in West Virginia and Colorado said Friday their states had since decided not to participate. West Virginia cited the cost.

Matrix was launched with $12 million in federal funds, but the documents obtained by the AP indicate each participating state could be forced to spend as much as $1.8 million per year. Shrewsbury said the long-term cost could be significantly lower.

Arizona's top cop, Dennis Garrett, signed a detailed Matrix security agreement Dec. 16 that paves the way for police in eight Western states to connect to the Matrix if they choose, through a secure computer network that they share and Arizona oversees. But Arizona officials did not say whether the state remains interested in Matrix for itself.

Dennis Schrader, Maryland's homeland security director, said the state eventually will have some type of "data-mining tool" to pool information and would not rule out Matrix.

The meeting minutes quote Florida state police Phil Ramer, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who is overseeing the project, as saying North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and Iowa were invited but didn't attend.

Officials in Iowa and North Carolina said Friday that they were exploring joining Matrix, while Alabama said it was too expensive.

For now, at least 450 law enforcement agents, mainly in Florida, have access to Matrix. Zadra said federal investigators from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and other agencies would be among those eligible for access.

As many as 13 states originally planned to be in Matrix, including California, whose attorney general says the system offends "fundamental rights of privacy."

Other states expressed worries about security. An open-records request in Georgia uncovered an Oct. 2 memo, for example, in which motor-vehicle department staffers noted that Seisint had promised "that every effort will be taken to make the database and the data transfer safe and secure. However, the potential for abuse still exists."

The Florida files include an Oct. 7 letter in which Deputy Superintendent Mark Oxley of the Louisiana state police wrote that his agency would not participate because of "lingering concerns" about the security of the records that would be sent to the database. He also questioned the "ever-broadening scope extending far beyond the original counterterrorism mission."

However, Oxley added that "most disappointing of all" was that Louisiana had to learn from news reports that Seisint's founder, Hank Asher, had admitted piloting flights for cocaine smugglers in the 1980s. Asher has resigned from Seisint's board.

Questions about Matrix still loom even in member states. New York has not shared any records because of questions about long-term funding and privacy laws, said Lynn Rasic, a spokeswoman for the governor's office.

And in Connecticut, where state police are using the system, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said this month he still wants answers "about privacy, cost, effectiveness and other issues."

Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new revelations make it more important than ever for federal officials to be more candid about their long-term plans for Matrix.

"This is all still very murky," he said.


AP Investigative Researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this report.


On the Net:

http://www.iir.com/matrix

http://www.aclu.org/privacy


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