Still Watching

Private industry moves in to compile personal data

Dave Lindorff

Coming soon to a law enforcement department near you: The Matrix, Loaded.

Not the movie—something far more disturbing: the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange.

In reaction to public outrage, Congress cancelled funding for retired Adm. John Poindexter’s so-called Total Information Awareness (TIA) project at the Pentagon—even though the “T” was later changed to the more acceptable “Terrorism.” But it turns out that a group of 13 states, spearheaded by Florida, have been working with a private company to develop a similar system designed to put everyone’s records at police fingertips.

Matrix—developed with a $12 million federal grant—was designed by Seisint Inc., which previously used its data-mining software to help insurance companies detect fraud.

For the last year and a half, Florida’s state police have been using Seisint’s system to search information at the touch of a keypad: drivers licenses, car registrations, criminal records, child abuse records and corrections records—as well as “publicly available” financial records. Another dozen states, including Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania, will buy into the system, giving police access to all of the other members’ records. Several states, including Texas and California, declined to participate, citing concerns about the security of the data being collected and accessed.

The ACLU, alarmed at what it sees as a state end run around congressional de-funding of Poindexter’s project, filed freedom of information requests October 30 for details of Matrix with all participating states

“This is a very scary development,” says Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. “This Matrix system means you can search information on hundreds of millions of people. Law-abiding Americans are going to pay the price for letting law enforcement troll all their data this way.”

Like TIA, Matrix backers say the system is simply another tool in the battle against terror. But it will play little part in that effort, which is largely a federal government job. Rather, Matrix will be used in run-of-the-mill law enforcement.

“I won’t lie to you,” says Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi, deputy commissioner for operations with the Pennsylvania State Police. “This system is not just being used to investigate terrorism.”

Concerns about possible misuse of data were aroused when it was discovered that the designer of the system, Hank Asher, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a $150-million cocaine smuggling ring. Asher resigned from the Seisint board last August.

Periandi serves as a member of the policy board developing Matrix and says with Asher gone there are no problems. “All of the Seisint people who will have access to the data will be vetted,” Periandi says. The system also will include tight controls over access, he continues, and a clear audit trail to follow in case of misuse.

But what about concerns that the system could lead to a world in which police monitor everyone? In response, Periandi laughs: “I guess it comes down to whether you trust the police or not.”

Given the record of police spying and misuse of intelligence data over the recent decades, most recently in Denver and Philadelphia, such a remark is not encouraging. Nor are reports that the Matrix consortium is considering giving access to the data to the CIA, which ordinarily is not supposed to spy on Americans within the United States.

Periandi argues that Matrix doesn’t give police new powers or access to additional data. “We can access all this information already,” he says. The difference: Getting it today requires making separate searches through individual databases in each of the 50 states. “With Matrix we can do it in 10 minutes,” he says.

But the ACLU’s Steinhardt replies that this is just the problem. “Before, investigators had to have a reason to track the information on one suspect,” he says. “Now they can do data-mining and search for associations among all citizens, based upon certain assumptions.”

Periandi provided a perfect example of such assumptions by suggesting that searches could examine how “serial killers tend to use all three of their names, like John Wilkes Booth.” But he disavows the term “data-mining.” Although it is widely used in modern industry, he says, police authorities prefer the term “database integration.”

“I think you’ll find that with a project as Orwellian as this, these government agencies will engage in the Orwellian practice of trying to rename things,” says Steinhardt. “But whatever you call it, it means the police using Matrix will be able to monitor the activities of all the citizens in their states—and that’s frightening.”

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Dave Lindorff, an In These Times contributing editor, is the author of This Can’t Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy. His work can be found at This Can’t Be Happening.
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