Multistate Matrix is wounded, not dead

Federal funding for the controversial Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (Matrix) ended last month, and privacy advocates applauded the demise of a program they had criticized as Big Brother government.

"This may be the biggest victory for privacy since we and our allies from across the political spectrum shut down Total Information Awareness," Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty project, said in a statement about the loss of Matrix funding. Total Information Awareness refers to a defunct Defense Department program for predicting terrorist attacks by analyzing patterns in large commercial databases.

At one time, the $12 million Matrix program had 13 participating states, but membership in the test program fell to four: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Connecticut. Some states dropped out because of data privacy concerns.

But officials at the Florida Law Enforcement Department have not given up and are planning a successor to the Matrix program. Florida officials have issued a request for information and have asked vendors to respond by May 16 with ideas about systems that can comb through and correlate information from various data sources.

Florida law enforcement officials are interested in Web-based systems such as Seisint's Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution database. Seisint has become part of LexisNexis.

According to the RFI, vendors should offer proposals for searching insurance, financial, business and property records, in addition to criminal histories and data on sexual offenders, motor vehicles, corrections and driver's licenses.

Mark Zadra, chief of investigations at the Florida Law Enforcement Department's Statewide Intelligence Office, said Matrix was wrongly characterized as a government snooping program. In reality, it generated leads for investigators in criminal cases, he said.

"This is the same data that law enforcement has always had access to legally without a subpoena or anything else," Zadra said. "We were just being more efficient and more effective."

Any successor program will not resemble Matrix, which relied on a massive database of records from several states, Zadra said. The new program will center on a network that lets state officials control data and authorize access for other users, he said.

Systems for data mining and analysis, such as Matrix, are inevitable, and law enforcement groups will have to use such technology to be effective in the Information Age, said a law enforcement official associated with the Society of Police Futurists International who asked not to be identified.

The official said that if law enforcement agencies are prevented from using such technologies, then federal, defense or private groups would likely use similar technologies in a law enforcement capacity.

Zadra said department officials will continue using the Seisint database for up to a year. If and when they create a successor to Matrix, they will invite other states to share information via a network, he said, adding that Florida and Ohio are close to completing an agreement for such sharing.

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