Matrix system endanger privacy
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Matrix system would put privacy on endangered list
In the hit sci-fi movie "The Matrix," a clueless slacker is offered a choice: Swallow a blue pill to continue life as he knows it, or swallow a red pill and learn the truth about a fearsome computer network secretly controlling humankind.
That's Hollywood. Here in real life, Georgia and a dozen other states have quietly chosen to join a vast computerized database purported to help fight crime and root out terrorists. It too is called Matrix, a tortured acronym for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange.
Matrix was created by Seisint Inc., a Florida-based company, with the help of $12 million in taxpayer-funded grants from the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. Adding to its cloak-and-dagger mystique, Seisint's millionaire founder, Hank Asher, was forced to sever ties with the company after reports surfaced that he was a former drug smuggler and government informant.
The Matrix system works by amassing terabytes of confidential information about private citizens, up to and including Social Security numbers and the addresses of their neighbors. Matrix then cross-references other public and private data, including credit and property records, and makes that intelligence available to participating police departments at lightning speed.
Florida was the first to take the plunge and has been using Matrix for about 18 months. Georgia has already sent information about some offenders to Matrix as part of a multistate experimental rollout.
No one can credibly argue with equipping law enforcement agencies with the constitutionally appropriate tools they need. What's worrisome is that state officials, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, apparently volunteered to include Georgia in a test of the Matrix program without first weighing the obvious public policy and privacy issues it raises.
In a belated spasm of common sense, Perdue has now instructed the state attorney general's office to review Georgia's proposed participation in the Matrix system. Specifically, Perdue wants to know if Matrix would violate Georgia laws that forbid disseminating drivers license information except in ongoing criminal investigations, and whether it's legally defensible to share other types of information with a non-government organization such as Seisint.
Such systems are often justified by high-minded talk about making Americans safer, but these digital dragnets could easily have the opposite effect. Congress recently balked at creation of a Matrix-like database originally labeled Total Information Awareness, later renamed Terrorist Information Awareness. In response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the TIA sought to use "data mining" techniques to collect confidential information about all Americans and then sift that data for possible patterns of lawbreaking.
Privacy advocates and civil libertarians are understandably queasy about the prospects of such unwarranted intrusions. "You can't trust government to keep data secure," state Rep. Brian Joyce (R-Lookout Mountain) observed after news broke of Georgia's participation in Matrix.
Private companies also have a mixed track record at best. Just last month, JetBlue Airways violated its own privacy policies by handing over 5 million passenger itineraries to a Defense Department contractor attempting to develop a profile of potential terrorists.
The information included Social Security numbers and information about customers' finances and their families. The airline apologized and an investigation is under way, but the damage is done.
Citing the dangers of privatizing critical law enforcement activities, California and Texas have decided to drop out of the Matrix program; Georgia should follow suit.
Sacrificing our privacy rights in the pursuit of the dubious benefits offered by Matrix is much too bitter a pill to swallow.