Florida Planning Son of Matrix
Wired News | April 26, 2005
By Ryan Singel
Nothing new under the sun. They shut down the old program, everyone goes to sleep and then they simply rename and expand it.
Florida law officials are contemplating a sequel to the controversial Matrix database that may be even more comprehensive than the original.
The Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, contained billions of commercial and government records, and was intended to help police track down terrorists and kidnappers. But the system was shut down on April 15 when federal funds ran out.
Considered overly invasive by many, the system's demise was celebrated by civil libertarians.
Barry Steinhardt, former associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a press release it was a major victory in the "long and hard fight against the growing surveillance society."
But Florida, which conceived and oversaw the Matrix, is not giving Steinhardt much time to savor the victory champagne, as it explores a possible sequel.
Florida law enforcement officials want Matrix II to include more types of data than the original, including financial and insurance records, according to an April 12 official call (.pdf) for information from vendors.
The document outlines Florida's intention to rebuild the system, an early step in the project's competitive bidding process.
Mark Zadra, chief of Florida's Office of Statewide Intelligence, said the state wants to rebuild the system and hopes other states will join.
"Once we do the competitive procurement process and if we see there is an easy way to share information with other states, other states may want to take advantage of (it)," Zadra said.
Steinhardt said that while he didn't know anything about the proposed successor to the Matrix, he wasn't surprised.
"Florida should change its motto from the Sunshine State to the Never Say Die State," Steinhardt said. "The Matrix really is dead, but that doesn't mean the impulse to collect and analyze data on American citizens is gone, and the technology only gets better."
The original system was a 13-state pilot program funded by $12 million from the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
By the time the program shut down, participation had dwindled to just four states -- Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- as states pulled out over concerns about costs and civil liberties.
The system was powered by supercomputer technology created by Seisint, a data company later acquired by LexisNexis.
The system allowed law enforcement to search a centralized database populated with records collected by states -- including criminal history, driver's license photos, property deeds and fishing licenses -- and billions of commercial data records.
For instance, an investigator could nearly instantaneously find all the white Ford Taurus vans whose license tag contained a "B," "C" and a "D" -- in any order -- and that were registered within a ZIP-code range. Then photos of all the licensed drivers in households where such vehicles were registered could be pulled up.
Law enforcement searched the database 1,866,202 times between July 2003 and April 2005, though less than 3 percent were related to terrorism investigations, according to Florida officials.
Civil liberties groups said Florida officials convinced other states to join the Matrix program, in part based on the ability of the system to engage in "pre-crime" profiling of potential terrorists and criminals.
But Florida's Zadra disputed the contention that the program ever involved searching for potential criminals based on profiles.
"At night the computers were not whirring away, and when you came in the morning, you would sit and read the top 20 terrorists it found. That's not how it worked," Zadra said. "We are not deaf and dumb to privacy issues."
Florida officials maintain that Matrix was -- and will continue to be -- simply a smarter way to run down partial clues.
That capability is critical for terrorism and kidnapping investigators, according to Matrix officials.
"I still think it's a useful and promising technology," said Paul Rosenzweig, a research fellow at Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He is serving as head of the Department of Homeland Security's privacy and technology advisory committee.
He added, "Now is the time for Congress to look at the program objectively, assess it and determine if it was as useful as the people who pushed it said it was, and whether or not there were any real privacy concerns."
Rosenzwieg said information-sharing networks are critical for intelligence agents and counter-terrorism investigators. "We know that information sharing was a problem we had in the past and we also know there are potential downfalls," Rosenzweig said.
Privacy activist Chris Hoofnagle, a director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, said somebody needs to watch the watchers.
As proof, Hoofnagle cited a recent story about a Florida sheriff who used the state's driving license database to track down a woman who called him fat in a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Though Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary has since apologized, the Sheriff's office maintains he did nothing wrong, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
On the other hand, Hoofnagle said he finds little objectionable in the idea of helping police track down leads using state databases.
"When you have been run over by a yellow Volkswagen Bug with a 'B' in the license plate, no privacy advocate is going to say you can't look up all yellow Bugs that match that description," Hoofnagle said.
But privacy advocates are less sanguine about including commercial data, which they say is notoriously inaccurate.
Florida's call for information about a Matrix successor may also raise eyebrows because it requires the vendor to have financial and insurance information, and the tools to analyze that information.
Though scores of companies sell data-mining and searching technology, only ChoicePoint, currently under media and government scrutiny for allowing identity thieves to harvest hundreds of thousands of records on Americans, has search technology and centralized insurance claim information.
Florida's Zadra said the department is not trying to favor a single bidder and is welcome to ideas from all kinds of vendors.