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ACLU warns of database’s privacy threat

The data-mining features of a seven-state crime database pose a threat to privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union warned Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A seven-state crime database launched with $12 million in federal funds is a more powerful threat to privacy than its organizers acknowledge, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged Wednesday after obtaining documents relating to the program.

The law enforcement officials and private database company behind the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, contend it is merely an investigative tool that helps police quickly gather already-available information on suspects.

But the ACLU and other privacy advocates allege that the program too closely resembles a scrapped Pentagon program that aimed to mine a vast pool of data to spot patterns useful in terrorism investigations. Congress cut off funding last year for the so-called Total Information Awareness program after a privacy outcry.

A Freedom of Information Act request filed with Pennsylvania yielded several documents that the ACLU says clearly show the Matrix’s data-mining abilities. Among them were minutes of a 2002 planning meeting that said the FBI, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency helped craft data-mining software for Matrix.

More federal involvement
That represents more federal involvement in the program than previously known, though the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security invested $12 million to get the system running.

The Pennsylvania documents include security and privacy policies that say Matrix is usable only in active criminal or intelligence investigations. Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s technology and liberty program, calls those guidelines too broad and susceptible to abuse.

Clay Jester, Matrix coordinator for the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, the nonprofit group helping to expand the project from its original implementation in Florida, called any comparisons to the defanged Pentagon data-mining program “a fallacy” resulting from misconceptions about Matrix.

Cross-referencing to 20 billion records
Matrix lets states share criminal, prison and vehicle information with each other and cross-reference it with up to 20 billion records in databases held by Seisint Inc. The Seisint records include people’s property, boats and Internet domains, their address history, utility connections, bankruptcies, civil court history, liens, voter registration and business filings.

For now the project involves Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah, though not all those states are using the system yet. In all, about 450 law enforcement agents can access Matrix, Jester said.

Several other states explored the program before dropping out because of concerns about privacy or the long-term cost, including Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas.