Police Still Using Matrix-Type Database
By DAVID ROYSE, Associated Press Writer
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - When the federal government in April stopped
funding a database that lets police quickly see public records and
commercially collected information on Americans, privacy advocates
celebrated what they saw as a victory against overzealous police in the
fight against terrorism.
But a few states are pressing forward with a similar system,
continuing to look for ways to quickly search through a trove of data
-- from driver's license photos to phone numbers to information about
people's cars. Their argument in seeking to keep the Matrix database
alive in some form: it's too important for solving crimes to give up
Florida, Ohio, Connecticut and Pennsylvania still use software that
lets investigators quickly cull through much of the data about people
that reside in cyberspace. However, without the federal grant for the
Matrix data-sharing system, they won't be routinely searching through
digital files from other states -- at least for now.
Privacy advocates still don't like the idea, saying government
shouldn't have easy access to so much information about people who
haven't done anything wrong.
But law officers bent on keeping the Matrix alive say the information
is already out there anyway for companies to use for less noble
purposes. Law enforcement has always used such information; it just
never had a big computer search tool to quickly find links between
people and places.
"The media uses that data, attorneys use it, banks use it," said Mark
Zadra, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent in charge of
the system. "We've been using online data like that for 10 to 15
years. What this does is link those. ... What took law enforcement so
long to use technology and get into the 21st century?"
Matrix -- the ominous name is shorthand for Multistate Anti-Terrorism
Information Exchange -- was born as an anti-terrorism tool in the wake
of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Created by Florida law enforcement officials working with a one-time
drug-running pilot-turned-millionaire computer whiz named Hank Asher,
it was conceived as a way for states to combine data they have on
people -- driving records and criminal histories, for example -- with
similar records from other states.
The company that Asher founded but no longer works for, Seisint Inc.,
also added to Matrix information gathered in the private sector,
including some of what credit card companies collect, such as names,
addresses and Social Security numbers -- though actual credit histories
were not included.
Together, the program would give states a powerful tool that could
link someone to several addresses or vehicles, and possibly to other
people who lived at those same houses or drove the same car.
Those links could help thwart terrorism or solve crimes in which
witnesses could provide only partial information, like half of a
license plate and the make of a car. The technology is credited in
part with helping police crack the Washington, D.C., sniper case in
"It very quickly allows you to identify identities, associates, things
like that," said Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi, deputy commissioner of the
Pennsylvania State Police. "Two or three other people who might be
Matrix impressed federal officials enough that the program was seeded
with $12 million from the Departments of Justice and Homeland
Security. Thirteen states eventually signed on or expressed interest
in feeding their data into the system, representing half the
But over time, several states pulled out, partly because of concerns
about the cost or laws governing the transfer of data out of
state. California's attorney general decided Matrix "offends
fundamental rights of privacy."
Those objections were nothing compared to the criticism Matrix
encountered from the right and the left, including from the American
Civil Liberties Union.
"It is essentially an electronic file on everyone whether they are
suspected of criminal activity or not," said Howard Simon, executive
director of the ACLU in Florida. "I can't think of anything more
When the federal grant for Matrix ended in April - there is dispute
over whether the privacy issues may have killed the government's
interest - the database itself officially ended as well. But Florida
and the three other states are still using its database-searching
software. Florida is continuing to seek out companies that can help
them build another, larger cache of information. And officials
envision one day sharing that data with other states again.
In addition to contracting for searching software from Seisint -- now
part of information giant LexisNexis -- Florida has requested
information from companies on what data they could provide that the
police could add to their database. The proposal says Florida police
are interested in such privately available data as insurance,
financial, property and business records.
Although Matrix was designed as a terrorism tool, Zadra said its main
value has been for solving more ordinary crimes. He cites success
stories ranging from kidnapping to frauds and theft. In fact, in
Florida the system is most often queried in fraud investigations,
followed closely by robbery, state records show.
To support those efforts, the Florida police envision getting what's
known as "credit header information" -- basic identifiers for people
-- from private credit rating agencies. That's led to fears that
police would be looking into people's credit.
"Absolutely not true," Zadra said. What the agency wants from credit
agencies is the up-to-date addresses that creditors are famously
aggressive about getting.
"We don't get their account numbers, we don't get their expenditures,
we don't track and monitor anybody," Zadra said. "We don't know what
library books you're checking out, what X-rated videos people are
The agency also wants to limit the searches to information generally
available either to the public or to law enforcement without a search
warrant, Zadra said. For example, one of the databases the system
searches is the FDLE's own registry of sex offenders -- which has
become a popular Web site for members of the general public to search
for people in their neighborhood.
For many privacy advocates Matrix raises the larger question of why so
much of this information is already out there in databases for law
enforcement to covet.
"Technology operates at the speed of light and privacy protection is
at a snail's pace," the ACLU's Simon said. "Governments like the state
of Florida have not enacted privacy legislation and aren't limiting
the circulation of information about you without your knowledge and
Zadra said the FDLE is keenly aware of concerns about how the data are
used -- but noted that ultimately the files are mostly public data that
people have freely given out. He points to the long lines of people at
sporting events who will give away information on themselves by
filling out a credit application just for a free T-shirt.
"They've given their private and personal information to somebody they
have no idea about, but when they hear law enforcement wants to use it
to solve a crime ... they can't believe it," Zadra said.
"We're doing exactly what the public asked us to do after
Sept. 11. They said, 'My goodness, how did the law enforcement
community allow this to happen?'"
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.
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