Monday, April 18, 2005

Controversial terror database Matrix shuts down

By Jill Barton
ASSOCIATED PRESS


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – A three-year-old crime and terrorism database that came under fire for sharing and collecting personal information was closing down Friday because a federal grant ran out.

Elements of the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange – Matrix – may live on if individual states decide to fund it on their own, said Bob Cummings, executive vice president for the Institute for Intergovernmental Research in Tallahassee, which helped coordinate the Matrix network.

"We're winding up the project today. The system that the federal government has basically paid for, the application itself to the users and the states, will either be assumed by the states or will no longer exist," he said.

Matrix was down to four participants – Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio and Connecticut – after several states opted out due to privacy concerns, legal issues or cost. It operated with grant money from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, but that funding expired Friday.

"They can put a good face on it, saying that the grant ran out, but frankly if there wasn't growing opposition to this kind of intrusive, investigatory technique, the funding wouldn't have run out," said Howard Simon, executive director for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union.

Matrix helped in terror-related investigations and to identify and locate suspects in violent crimes, drug-related cases, home invasions and other investigations, law enforcement officials said.

In Pennsylvania, the system had 1.9 million queries since July 2003. A component of the database allows investigators to search for information based on incomplete data, such as a portion of a vehicle license number and description or a name and date of birth, according to the Pennsylvania State Police.

The query can let law enforcement agencies pinpoint a criminal suspect in seconds.

"We've had situations where that occurred and we were sitting in that person's driveway when they came back and there was evidence of the crime in that car," said Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi of the Pennsylvania State Police, who served as the state's Matrix executive board member.

The database drew immediate criticism from privacy rights groups, including the ACLU, which argued that it provided unprecedented access to details about innocent people, including credit histories, marital history, fingerprints and Social Security numbers.

The database combined state records with information owned by Seisint Inc., which was a private company when the Matrix was formed, but has since been purchased by LexisNexis.

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 a 2003 report by the Georgia state Office of Homeland Security.

"Creating a file on people who are not suspected of criminal activity, simply because there is the electronic capacity to do so, is so profoundly un-American," Simon said.

Periandi blamed such criticism for a lack of public support for the project.

"They have to sleep at night knowing that the nation is more vulnerable," he said. "We were painted to be these privacy-rights violators with Gestapo-type tactics. That's never what it was about.

"We were protecting the public and we were working on anti-terrorism tactics," he said. "It's not to our advantage not to be able to talk to each other and share information."

Justice Department officials paid $12 million for the pilot project to Boca Raton-based Seisint, which was founded in 1998 and developed products aimed at fraud detection, law enforcement and legal investigations.

Founder Hank Asher designed the Matrix database to give investigators fast access to information on crime and terrorism suspects by combining state records and other data culled by Seisint. Asher stepped down from the company's board in 2003 after revelations of past ties to Bahamian drug smugglers.

Asher did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail to his attorney on Friday.

Law enforcement officials said the database, with its 4 billion records, sped access to material that police have always been able to get from disparate sources, and does not automatically or proactively finger suspects.

But public records examined by the Associated Press last year showed that before the project was launched, Seisint gave U.S. and Florida authorities the names of 120,000 people who showed a statistical likelihood of being terrorists–sparking some investigations and arrests.

Law enforcement officials said they would adapt to work without the database.

"As far as Florida goes, it will be pretty much business as usual," said Tom Berlinger, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "We get the impression that the other states are going to continue with their programs just like we're going to continue with ours."

Florida had 963 law enforcement users of the system who mostly made queries related to fraud, robbery, sex crimes or theft cases.

Connecticut Public Safety Commissioner Leonard Boyle said his state is considering whether it can continue an information-sharing network with other states, but much of that hinges upon cost.

"We have talked to others about whether they'll host it," Boyle said. "Right now it's just in the talking phase. No one has volunteered."
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