Mon, Feb 02, 2004 - Page 7 News List

US divided over proposed crime database project

MATRIX RECONSIDERED A system in which states collect and share data on their citizens has been criticized for violating people's right to privacy


Although privacy worries led several US states to pull out of a federally funded crime and terrorism database project called the Matrix, others are actively considering joining and thereby sharing information on their citizens, The Associated Press has learned.

Law enforcement officials say the Matrix project is an ultra-efficient way for investigators to get information about suspects that authorities previously had to obtain from disparate sources. They insist it includes only public records and does not make predictions about crime or terrorism.

But privacy advocates say Matrix gives law enforcement too much access to private details on millions of people, resembling the Pentagon terrorism data-mining program that drew public rebuke and lost Congressional funding last year.

Mark Zadra, chief investigator for Florida state police, which runs the Matrix project, said organizers have given presentations to more than 10 northeastern and midwestern states in recent weeks, arguing at each stop that the database is an invaluable law enforcement tool.

Officials in Iowa and North Carolina said on Friday that they are exploring the system. And documents obtained through a public-records request in Florida indicate Arizona and Arkansas also may have interest in the quick-access information repository, which combines state records with 20 billion pieces of data held by a private company.

For now, Matrix -- short for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange -- involves Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan.

Utah's governor said Thursday that she was halting the state's participation, which was launched under her predecessor, and appointing a panel to examine security and privacy issues.

Another state once involved, Georgia, said Friday it is now dropping out completely -- after reporters confronted officials with documents indicating the state was continuing to participate despite a public proclamation to the contrary in October from Governor Sonny Perdue.

Bill Shrewsbury, a vice president at Seisint, the company that maintains the database, said he expects five or six more states to join the program, though he would not specify which ones.

"I've never shown it to any law enforcement people who didn't say: `My goodness, this is unbelievable technology. It makes our job so much easier,'" said Shrewsbury, a former agent with Florida state police and the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

For now, at least 450 law enforcement agents, mainly in Florida, have access to Matrix. Zadra said federal investigators from the Department of Homeland Security, FBI and other agencies would be among those eligible for access.

As many as 13 states originally planned to be in Matrix, including California, whose attorney general now says the system offends "fundamental rights of privacy."

Other states expressed worries about security. An open-records request in Georgia uncovered an Oct. 2 memo, for example, in which motor-vehicle department staffers noted that Seisint had promised "that every effort will be taken to make the database and the data transfer safe and secure. However, the potential for abuse still exists."

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