|Total Information Awareness
is returning on the state level, and New York is among the first on
Epilogue - On March 9, 2004. New York State pulled put of MATRIX after state lawmakers objected to the NYS police. (see follow up story, March 18)
It’s baaaack. Total Information Awareness, the Big Brother-like Pentagon plan to identify terrorist suspects through data mining of Americans’ personal records [See “O Big Brother, Where Art Thou,” Newsfront, Dec. 5, 2002] was scrapped last September after it encountered bipartisan opposition in Congress. Now critics are saying that Congress’s stake somehow missed the vampire’s heart, and TIA is back in a new form: MATRIX, a multistate federally funded antiterrorist and anticrime database that New York has provisionally joined.
After a Jan. 22 Associated Press report brought MATRIX into the public eye, two prominent members of the New York State Assembly voiced deep concern about the program’s potential impact on privacy rights. At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union made available documents newly obtained through the Freedom of Information Law that support its contention that the project closely resembles TIA.
“MATRIX is Total Information Awareness, part two,” said Christopher Calabrese, the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program counsel. “It sorts through billions of commercial and government records looking for patterns and individuals to investigate. It makes every American a suspect. . . . The federal government is clearly using the MATRIX as a back door to accomplish what it couldn’t with TIA.”
MATRIX, which stands for Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, was developed beginning in October 2001 by the Seisint Corporation of Boca Raton, Fla. Seisint is a personal data collection company that gathers information on individuals from various publicly available sources. The state of Florida and federal law enforcement officials helped Seisint create this investigative tool by combining its commercial records—real estate, boat and Internet domain name ownership; address changes, utility connections, and bankruptcies; civil court records such as marriages and divorces, business filings, liens; and voter registrations, all going as far back as 30 years—with government criminal and motor vehicle records.
Seisint said its program accurately fingered five of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers who had lived in Florida (it is not clear if any innocent people were misidentified as suspects in the trial run). From 2002 to 2003, the federal government provided the project with a total of $12 million through the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. The Institute for Intergovernmental Research, a Florida-based nonprofit corporation, administers the program and distributes funds to Seisint and the states involved.
At first up to 20 states were involved in the project, but due to concerns over privacy or funding, several states withdrew. Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah are either still participating or considering taking part. Participating states are pooling their information—about 20 billion bits of data in total—so that 450 law enforcement officers from the other states, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security have access to it.
In the minutes of an October 2002 planning session attended by representatives of 12 states, obtained by the ACLU through FOIL, the FBI and Seisint revealed that they had developed a data-mining application, FCIC Plus, with the help of the FBI, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Data mining, with its potential to wrongfully target innocent Americans as terrorists, was the centerpiece of Total Information Awareness.
New York State Office of Public Security spokeswoman Lynn Rasic explained that the state’s involvement with MATRIX is still tentative. “The New York State Police, in coordination with the Office of Public Security, is currently evaluating the program,” she said. “The state does not intend to participate unless the program complies with our privacy standards one hundred percent, and has federal funds to support it.” New York is currently not sharing information with any other states, she added.
R. Clay Jester, the IIR’s MATRIX project coordinator, denied that it was a new version of TIA, saying the application can be used only to bring up information on suspects in an active criminal investigation, and does not finger possible terrorists based on predetermined profiling standards. “I think it’s unfortunate how this thing has been mischaracterized,” he said, but agreed it would be helpful if laws were passed regulating its use. Jester predicted that after the FOIL requests were granted, the differences between MATRIX and TIA would become apparent.
Some of the documents the ACLU has obtained, however, seem to contradict Jester’s prognostication. In the minutes of a Feb. 6, 2003, meeting in San Antonio, Texas, James T. Moore, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and chair of the MATRIX committee, said “a key point of the effort is to build a national intelligence system.” Towards that end, Bob Cummings of IIR suggested that “the law-enforcement agency in each state provide the criminal history information and then work on gaining access to and providing the other information not controlled by the law-enforcement agency in that state.” Lt. Col. Steven Cumoletti and Lt. Col. Bart Johnson of the New York State Police attended this meeting.
The minutes also suggest that the creators of MATRIX felt they had something to hide when they edited a brochure describing the project. “Chairman Moore advised that the MATRIX promotional document is being updated to remove references to data mining . . .” the record states.
Also, the federal government has been involved with MATRIX at a higher level than was previously known. At the meeting, Moore stated that he and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had briefed Vice President Dick Cheney, Homeland Security head Tom Ridge and FBI director Robert Mueller on the project.
Not everyone in New York is accepting MATRIX with open arms. New York State Assemblyman Alexander “Pete” Grannis (D-Manhattan) said that MATRIX “poses a real threat” to civil liberties and privacy. “I think it’s extremely troubling, and I think before we move ahead with this we should have it looked at and approved by the State Legislature,” he said firmly. (The executive branch responded to the federal invitation to participate, but it was not brought before the Legislature.) Grannis added that abuses of the system are likely and that he intends to take the matter up with his colleagues.
Assemblyman William Parment (D-Jamestown) shared Grannis’ concern. “Compiling a multiaddress database on individuals who are not suspected of any criminal wrongdoing,” he said, “seems to me to be an abuse of government discretion, and violative of privacy rights.”
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