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Total Information Awareness II?

Published May 31, 2004

It is time for Gov. Jeb Bush and the federal government to provide solid privacy assurances to the public before continuing to use a computer database that was sold as a tool for criminal investigations but could be used as a back-door effort at data-mining for terrorist suspects.

The system known as the Matrix - which stands for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange - was built by Seisint, Inc., a Florida-based company, and presented as an innocuous time-saving tool for local law enforcement. When it was launched, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement asserted that the Matrix database was merely a collection of public records that would ease investigations of particular crimes and suspects. The program was to be state-driven with some federal funding; and repeated assurances were made by the FDLE that the powerful database would not resemble Total Information Awareness, the data-mining program shut down by Congress last year due to privacy concerns.

Data-mining is an untested idea that uses algorithms applied to massive amounts of data on the general public. Patterns are then analyzed to try and tease out potential terrorists. When the Pentagon launched TIA, the program came under sharp attack for seeking to aggregate commercial and government records that would scrutinize the lives of innocent people. The program would have made every person in the country a potential suspect. After Congress cut off funding for TIA, the program died, but according to a new General Accounting Office report some federal agencies have been experimenting with alternative data-mining programs for terror suspects.

Records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Associated Press point to the very real possibility that the Matrix also has the potential to be a recreation of TIA. It is known that at one point that a precursor to the system was used for data-mining terrorist suspects. Seisint turned over the resulting 120,000 names - people the company claimed had a high terrorism quotient after being run through the system's terrorism scoring system - to federal and Florida law enforcement authorities. These suspects were "unearthed" after analyzing data on age and gender, pilot and drivers' licenses, ethnicity and investigation records, among other factors.

Mark Zadra, chief of investigation for the FDLE, claims that the terrorism scoring algorithm is not operational and is not part of the Matrix system used by Florida. But as recently as last year Gov. Bush was promoting the Matrix's data-mining capabilities and anti-terrorism potential to Vice President Dick Cheney. The meeting in January 2003 was an attempt to get Cheney's support for more federal funding. Bush has also been a leader in trying to enlist other states to join the Matrix.

There is another reason to be concerned that pattern analysis data-mining may at some point become a central feature of the Matrix. In July 2003, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Domestic Preparedness granted $8-million for the expansion and operation of the Matrix. In exchange, the office was afforded direct administrative control over the program.

Suspicion of the Matrix has been spawned by a general lack of forthrightness by public officials. These suspicions have led Utah and at least eight other states to pull out of the program. If Florida is going to continue to participate, formal constraints should be established relative to the kinds of data that may be used, how it may be used and for what purpose. Zadra says that every Matrix transaction is logged. Those logs should be publicly available within a reasonable period of time. The Matrix can easily be turned into a highly invasive system and a TIA clone. Accountability, transparency and privacy protections should be established before harms occur.

[Last modified May 30, 2004, 23:56:21]


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