Re-enter the matrix
- By Brian Robinson
- Aug 30, 2004
When law enforcement officials from several states got together after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and decided they needed to improve the way they share information, they came up with the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix) system.
It seemed like a great idea, and as a technology project, most believe it still is. It has moved what was a time-consuming method of tracking investigative leads — making phone calls or sending faxes to people in other states and waiting hours or even days for a reply — into the 21st-century world of electronic networks and automated database queries.
What the law enforcement professionals who put Matrix together did not bargain for was the ensuing uproar over privacy concerns and accusations of government Big Brotherdom.
If officials decide to move forward with Matrix once the initial evaluation phase ends next March, project participants know they will have to do a much better job of explaining the system to politicians, the public and even their law enforcement colleagues.
"There's no doubt we were taken by surprise by the controversy that erupted," said Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi, deputy commissioner of operations for the Pennsylvania State Police. "One of the major lessons we've learned is that we have to get out front on this thing with our public relations program."
It is a pity, he said, that all the furor is detracting from what is a technically sound project that "works well and is very effective."
The path to Matrix began just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, when a Florida company called Seisint Corp., which develops applications to extract information from large databases, offered use of its database of public and commercial records to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), if the agency needed it to help identify terrorists.
Company officials also offered to provide software that could be used to help collect and collate the data. At the same time, FDLE officials realized that the agency had its own records that could be used for the same purpose. They combined that data with Seisint's to form one searchable database.
An early form of a querying application for Seisint's database eventually turned into the Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution, the Web-based technology core of Matrix. With the solution, users can submit a query on anything relating to a possible suspect or a criminal situation and get back a slew of related information within seconds.
"It's the speed of the system that just knocks your socks off," said John Monce, superintendent of the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation in Ohio's Office of the Attorney General.
Matrix started as a way for law enforcement officials in Florida, Georgia, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania to share data, but a handful of other states also were attracted to the project. By mid-2003 it had grown to encompass 13 states, accounting for about 50 percent of the U.S. population.
It wasn't all smooth sailing; some state officials who showed early interest in Matrix dropped out.
Texas, for example, backed out because officials had their own communications network for law enforcement and didn't want to have to use the Regional Information Sharing System Network, a secure network that connects various law enforcement agencies in all 50 states that is being used as the communications backbone for Matrix.
In other states, officials voiced concern about the security of the data that would be provided for Matrix. As originally envisioned, the data would be held in a central database and members would physically have to move their data into it. Some state officials found they didn't have the legal backing to allow that.
Other officials balked at having to pay continuation costs after the Matrix pilot program, which is funded through federal grants, ends.
However, the real trouble started in late 2003, when American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) members started campaigning against Matrix, claiming that law enforcement agencies could mine an array of personal information contained in the database to look for possible criminals.
Stories began appearing in newspapers nationwide comparing Matrix to the Total Information Awareness program, which was conceived by officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a way of tracking potential terrorists in the general population. Officials had to shelve TIA after a public outcry over privacy implications.
But ACLU members were wrong about Matrix, said Mark Zadra, chief of investigations with FDLE's Office of Statewide
For one thing, he said, the system simply speeds up access to data that was already available to law enforcement. No data mining is involved, and Matrix can only be used to help with legitimate criminal investigations, not for general fishing purposes, he said.
Even so, some states dropped out after the ACLU's campaign gathered momentum. Utah officials backed out because of privacy concerns after the governor and other state political leaders complained that they learned of the state's involvement only through news stories.
Involvement in Matrix is now down to five states: Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Richard Hunter, a vice president and research director at Gartner Inc. and author of the recent book "World Without Secrets: Business, Crime and Privacy in the Age of Ubiquitous Computing," believes the onus is on Matrix supporters to make their intentions clearer.
It's obvious that a lot of thought has gone into setting the rules for how Matrix can be used, he said, but a public statement on the goals for Matrix and how people will be able to measure its progress is needed.
"For example, progress in these types of programs can be judged by how they identify specific terrorists," Hunter said. "People don't want to see them used for generalized searches on the general public in the guise of cutting down general crime."
In the absence of clearly stated goals and rules for the use of Matrix, critics of the program have a right to be concerned, he said.
Law enforcement officials who use Matrix are making adjustments. For example, they recently decided to move to a distributed database so that states would be able to control their own data, alleviating concerns about the security of data that is moved to a central database.
The idea of a distributed database was floated when Matrix was first conceived, but the software to drive it was not considered robust enough at the time, said several officials involved in the project.
And the group will definitely be taking a more active lead in getting the word out about Matrix, the officials said. Members know they need to ease public fears, but even more importantly, they need to ensure that state legislators and other leaders understand what the project is about.
The advantage of that was made clear to Zadra when he recently testified to lawmakers in Utah.
"You could see the lights going on when I told them about what Matrix is about and particularly that it's not the hit they thought it was on such things as privacy," he said.
The Matrix group went on the defensive when the ACLU objected, Monce said. Now members need to start showing the system's capabilities in order to recruit other states to join in.
"Matrix sells itself to law enforcement, but we need to do a much better job of selling it to governors, legislators and others," he said.
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Project: Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange system, currently backed by the main state law enforcement agencies of Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Purpose: To increase and enhance local, state and federal law enforcement agencies' exchange of sensitive information on terrorism and other criminal activity.
Status: A pilot proof-of-concept project funded by federal government grants is due to end in March 2005.