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MATRIX Knows All About You

By Pete Shuler · June 9th, 2004 · Statehouse
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Despite very real privacy and data security concerns, the Taft administration provides information compiled from Ohioans' driver licenses, vehicle registrations, traffic infractions, court proceedings and criminal and incarceration records to the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX), a massive law enforcement database used by several states and by the federal government.

Ohio's data is combined with similar information from other states and with records from commercial databases before being mined by both humans and computers for supposed anomalies that might indicate criminal activity.

Neither public officials nor the officers of Seisint Inc., the company that operates MATRIX, are forthcoming about this meta-database's content. But it could very easily include medical histories, financial transactions and information, investment activity, credit card statements, memberships and affiliations, telephone company records, e-mails, Internet surfing activity and other items.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is. Early last year the Department of Defense established Total Information Awareness (TIA), a program with data compilation and mining practices identical to those of MATRIX. Privacy advocates and others immediately objected to TIA's Orwellian goals, so the Bush administration renamed it Terrorism Information Awareness and attempted to assuage privacy concerns by backing off prior claims about the program's capabilities. Skeptical of this backpedaling, Congress snuffed TIA in September 2003.

But MATRIX, technically run by the states, is beyond Congress's reach. In a Reaganesque skirting of the legislature's constitutionally established role, President Bush simply replaced TIA with MATRIX -- which his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, had started a year earlier with Seisint. In July 2003, the beginning of the end for TIA, the Department of Homeland Security awarded $8 million to MATRIX, bringing the program's total federal funding to $12 million. Instead of merely granting the money to Florida, however, DHS entered into an agreement that gave the Bush administration "managerial oversight and control" of MATRIX. Furthermore, Jeb Bush has briefed Vice President Dick Cheney on the program's progress and has sought more federal funding.

As a return on their investment, federal officials have received the names of 120,000 individuals tagged as possible terrorists by MATRIX. Although the federal government funds and utilizes MATRIX, it is not yet a nationwide program. Seisint and Jeb Bush, who has led the sales charge for MATRIX, convinced only 16 states to participate, 10 of which have since withdrawn, citing cost and concerns about security, privacy and inaccurate data.

Georgia participates, but its department of motor vehicles (DMV) has refused to share data for all of these reasons. States must pay $1.78 million annually to participate in MATRIX, and they must fund the purchase and construction of the technological infrastructure necessary to access the program. Because MATRIX requires constant data updates, states also incur ongoing expenses related to compiling, reviewing and transmitting such data. The Georgia DMV projected that the ongoing annual costs for that department alone would be $411,000.

Some states are also concerned that inaccurate data could be transmitted to MATRIX and utilized by individuals without the state-specific knowledge necessary to recognize the errors.

"We're handling people's futures, and we had some concerns about (incorrect data)," Lt. Walter Wolfe of the Louisiana State Police told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in explaining the state's decision to withdraw from MATRIX.

Concerns have also been raised about the security of data housed on computers at Seisint. Data vendor ChoicePoint refused to bid on the MATRIX program due to the lack of adequate security, according to the Associated Press. When withdrawing from the program, officials in California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas and in Georgia's DMV specifically cited security concerns.

Such worries are warranted. It appears that, since MATRIX's inception, no external party has assessed the system's security -- a glaring oversight, considering the sensitivity of the data housed within it. Firewalls -- powerful security measures so basic, inexpensive and easy to install that they are common features on home computer systems -- were installed only after MATRIX had been operational for well over a year. It also took Seisint officials more than a year to perform background checks on individuals with access to the program's data.

Even if the MATRIX data were housed in a secure environment, privacy concerns remain. Proponents of the program claim that MATRIX merely automates the record searches that any good detective would perform anyway. However, because searching without the technological power of MATRIX takes a significant amount of time, police are forced to focus only on criminal investigations, not on fishing expeditions. The speed and immediacy of MATRIX present police with the easily abused power of investigating any American while expending negligible time, energy and resources.

With a few clicks, anyone with access to the program can dig into the personal histories of their enemies, their friends and neighbors, their current or ex-lovers and the driver who cut them off. The MATRIX board of directors recognized this potential for abuse when they proposed inserting a provision into the program's privacy policy saying, "Individual carriers cannot use the system for their own personal benefit."

Phil Ramer, an atypically candid Florida law enforcement officer, also admitted to this privacy problem.

"It's scary," he told The Washington Post. "It could be abused. I mean, I can call up everything about you, your pictures and pictures of your neighbors."

But Florida officials insist that oversight of users by Florida police, along with background checks and audits on users, will prevent such problems.

To hell with the delicate systems of checks and balances designed over the past two centuries to protect innocent Americans from unjust searches, to hell with the Constitution -- just trust us, the police are saying.

Yet six states, including Ohio, are not concerned by the security, privacy and cost issues that bother the other 44. Combined with the proliferation of private and government surveillance cameras, such as those monitoring some Cincinnati's street corners, MATRIX's digital recording and storage of our lives and the police monitoring of those recordings brings reality terrifyingly close to Orwell's 1984. The only remaining step toward fully realizing that vision is to aim cameras directly into the windows of our homes.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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