When the federal government in April stopped funding a database that lets police quickly see public records and commercially collected information on Americans, privacy advocates celebrated what they saw as a victory against overzealousness in the fight against terrorism.
But a few states are pressing forward with a similar system, continuing to look for ways to quickly search through a trove of data — from driver's license photos to phone numbers to information about people's cars. Their argument in seeking to keep the Matrix database alive in some form: it's too important for solving crimes to give up on.
Florida, Ohio, Connecticut and Pennsylvania still use software that lets investigators quickly cull through much of the data about people that reside in cyberspace. However, without the federal grant for the Matrix data-sharing system, they won't be routinely searching through digital files from other states — at least for now.
Privacy advocates still don't like the idea, saying government shouldn't have easy access to so much information about people who haven't done anything wrong.
But law officers bent on keeping the Matrix alive say the information is already out there anyway for companies to use for less noble purposes. Law enforcement has always used such information; it just never had a big computer search tool to quickly find links between people and places.
"The media uses that data, attorneys use it, banks use it," said Mark Zadra, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent in charge of the system. "We've been using online data like that for 10 to 15 years. What this does is link those. ... What took law enforcement so long to use technology and get into the 21st century?"
Matrix — the ominous name is shorthand for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange — was born as an anti-terrorism tool in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Created by Florida law enforcement officials working with a one-time drug-running pilot-turned-millionaire computer whiz named Hank Asher, it was conceived as a way for states to combine data they have on people — driving records and criminal histories, for example — with similar records from other states.
The company that Asher founded but no longer works for, Seisint Inc., also added to Matrix information gathered in the private sector, including some of what credit card companies collect, such as names, addresses and Social Security numbers — though actual credit histories were not included.
Together, the program would give states a powerful tool that could link someone to several addresses or vehicles, and possibly to other people who lived at those same houses or drove the same car.
Those links could help thwart terrorism or solve crimes in which witnesses could provide only partial information, like half of a license plate and the make of a car. The technology is credited in part with helping police crack the Washington, D.C., sniper case in 2002.
"It very quickly allows you to identify identities, associates, things like that," said Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi, deputy commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. "Two or three other people who might be connected."
Matrix impressed federal officials enough that the program was seeded with $12 million from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Thirteen states eventually signed on or expressed interest in feeding their data into the system, representing half the U.S. population.
But over time, several states pulled out, partly because of concerns about the cost or laws governing the transfer of data out of state. California's attorney general decided Matrix "offends fundamental rights of privacy."
Those objections were nothing compared to the criticism Matrix encountered from the right and the left, including from the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It is essentially an electronic file on everyone whether they are suspected of criminal activity or not," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU in Florida. "I can't think of anything more un-American."
When the federal grant for Matrix ended in April — there is dispute over whether the privacy issues may have killed the government's interest — the database itself officially ended as well. But Florida and the three other states are still using its database-searching software. Florida is continuing to seek out companies that can help them build another, larger cache of information. And officials envision one day sharing that data with other states again.
In addition to contracting for searching software from Seisint — now part of information giant LexisNexis — Florida has requested information from companies on what data they could provide that the police could add to their database. The proposal says Florida police are interested in such privately available data as insurance, financial, property and business records.
Although Matrix was designed as a terrorism tool, Zadra said its main value has been for solving more ordinary crimes. He cites success stories ranging from kidnapping to frauds and theft. In fact, in Florida the system is most often queried in fraud investigations, followed closely by robbery, state records show.
To support those efforts, the Florida police envision getting what's known as "credit header information" — basic identifiers for people — from private credit rating agencies. That's led to fears that police would looking into people's credit.
"Absolutely not true," Zadra said. What the agency wants from credit agencies is the up-to-date addresses that creditors are famously aggressive about getting.
"We don't get their account numbers, we don't get their expenditures, we don't track and monitor anybody," Zadra said. "We don't know what library books you're checking out, what X-rated videos people are renting."
The agency also wants to limit the searches to information generally available either to the public or to law enforcement without a search warrant, Zadra said. For example, one of the databases the system searches is the FDLE's own registry of sex offenders — which has become a popular Web site for members of the general public to search for people in their neighborhood.
For many privacy advocates Matrix raises the larger question of why so much of this information is already out there in databases for law enforcement to covet.
"Technology operates at the speed of light and privacy protection is at a snail's pace," the ACLU's Simon said. "Governments like the state of Florida have not enacted privacy legislation and aren't limiting the circulation of information about you without your knowledge and consent."
Zadra said the FDLE is keenly aware of concerns about how the data are used — but noted that ultimately the files are mostly public data that people have freely given out. He points to the long lines of people at sporting events who will give away information on themselves by filling out a credit application just for a free T-shirt.
"They've given their private and personal information to somebody they have no idea about, but when they hear law enforcement wants to use it to solve a crime ... they can't believe it," Zadra said.
"We're doing exactly what the public asked us to do after Sept. 11. They said, `My goodness, how did the law enforcement community allow this to happen?'"