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Database raises privacy concerns { September 24 2003 }

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Anti-terror database raises privacy concerns
Fla. firm stores billions of files on U.S. citizens

Associated Press

September 24, 2003

NEW YORK - While privacy worries are frustrating the Pentagon's plans for a far-reaching database to combat terrorism, a similar project is quietly taking shape with the participation of more than a dozen states - and $12 million in federal money.

The database project, created so states and local authorities can track would-be terrorists as well as criminal fugitives, is being built and housed in the offices of a private company but will be open to some federal law enforcers and perhaps even U.S. intelligence agencies.

Dubbed Matrix, the database has been in use for a year and a half in Florida, where police praise the crime-fighting tool as nimble and exhaustive.

It cross-references the state's driving records and restricted police files with billions of public and private data, including credit and property records.

But privacy advocates, officials in two states and a competing data vendor have branded Matrix as playing fast and loose with Americans' private details.

They complain that Matrix houses restricted police and government files on colossal databases that sit in the offices of Seisint Inc., a company in Boca Raton, Fla., founded by a millionaire who police say flew planeloads of drugs into the country in the early 1980s.

"It's federally funded, it's guarded by state police, but it's on private property? That's very interesting," said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor and expert in privacy issues.

"If it's federally funded, the federal government obviously has a huge interest in it."

Matrix initially was intended to track terrorists, as was the Pentagon's Terrorism Information Awareness project that sparked a congressional uproar and got watered down.

As a dozen more states pool their criminal and government files with Florida's, Matrix databases are expanding in size and power.

Organizers hope to coax more states to join, touting its usefulness in everyday policing.

But California and Texas no longer participate out of concern over storing sensitive files at Seisint.

And a competing data vendor, ChoicePoint Inc., decided not to bid on the project, saying it lacked adequate privacy safeguards.

Laws at risk

Aspects of the project appear designed to steer around federal laws that bar the U.S. government from collecting routine data on Americans.

For instance, the project is billed as a tool for state and local police, but organizers are considering giving access to the Central Intelligence Agency, said Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's intelligence office.

In the 1970s, Congress barred the CIA from scanning files on average Americans, after the agency was found to be spying on U.S. civil rights leaders.

"The CIA doesn't have this now," Ramer said. "That's a major political issue we'll have to cross."

Florida officials have acknowledged that users of Matrix, which stands for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, can "monitor innocent citizens."

Ramer and others say, however, that unscrupulous spying will be prevented through Florida police oversight of Matrix users, along with audits and background checks on people with access to the database.

Officials stressed that Matrix data is already available to police, but Seisint has figured out how to do in a few minutes what normally takes weeks.

The Matrix system gives investigators access to personal data, like boat registrations and property deeds, without the government possibly violating the 1974 Privacy Act by owning the files.

Unlike the Pentagon project, Matrix is governed by rules that don't let police sift aimlessly through records. Rather, analysts are supposed to focus on actual crimes and suspects, Ramer said.

"It's not some secret undercover operation," Ramer said. "We just want to be more efficient using technology."

A bill in Congress seeks to restrict such government data mining. The bill, sponsored by two Democratic senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, wouldn't bar the type of focused searches done in Florida, but would require federal agencies to report their use of these types of private databases.

Misuse feared

Privacy advocates say police tools like Matrix can undermine a free society because they're often used beyond their intended purposes.

Because the databases often contain inaccuracies, they increase the potential for wrongful arrests and employment discrimination, said Evan Hendricks, publisher of Privacy Times of Cabin John, Md.

"There's no oversight for this type of stuff," Hendricks said.

Matrix is headquartered in Florida, a state known for its open public records laws. Criminal history files in the database are maintained by 15 Seisint employees, watched over by Florida state police, Ramer said.

Yet a Florida Department of Law Enforcement memo obtained by the Associated Press shows potential lapses in oversight.

The memo says background checks on Seisint's Matrix workers took place only last month, more than a year into the program, and a privacy policy governing the database's use has yet to be completed.

Privately held Seisint landed a contract to build Matrix - and receive $9.5 million in federal funds - without having to compete against similar vendors.

Comment declined

Seisint declined to comment for this article, referring a reporter to Seisint's public relations representative, Amber Zentis of Qorvis Communications, who asked that questions be e-mailed. The company did not answer those questions.

Ramer and other organizers say Matrix's spur-of-the-moment roots and efforts to keep it affordable are responsible for much of the controversy. The project was not designed to skirt federal laws, Ramer said.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, Florida police demonstrated Matrix to federal officials including Vice President Dick Cheney.

Seisint won federal grants and exclusive development rights because of "time limitations, costs to develop, and search methodologies" that work better than competitors', said Justice Department spokeswoman Sheila Jerusalem.

The Department of Homeland Security is paying Seisint $8 million for data analysis and will have direct access to Matrix, Jerusalem said. The Justice Department has spent another $4 million on Seisint.

FBI task forces in Florida already use Matrix, and agents elsewhere will get access through the states, Ramer said.

There are other potential users.

One is the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the forthcoming CAPPS II program to screen airline passengers for terror ties, Ramer said.

"Everyone who's seen it wants it, believe me," he said.

Copyright 2003, The Baltimore Sun

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