Even as states retreat from participating in a controversial interstate antiterrorism database that holds billions of records of ordinary Americans’ activities, Wisconsin has decided to join the program.
The head of Wisconsin’s division of criminal investigation, James R. Warren, signed on to join the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, on Feb. 11, said Tom Berlinger, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which runs the program.
With access to the Matrix database, Wisconsin law enforcement officials can look up vast amounts of personal information culled from government and commercial databases. The information includes driver’s license pictures, addresses, professional licenses, names of neighbors and relatives, and even domain-name registration filings and hunting licenses.
Brian Rieselman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin attorney general’s office, confirmed Wisconsin had signed on, but said its agents have not yet been trained and do not have access to the search tool. Wisconsin also hasn’t agreed to feed its driver’s license and motor vehicle registries into the database yet, he said.
Originally, 13 states were involved in the information-sharing initiative, but only six of those states remain – Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Florida. States joining the effort agree to regularly upload driver’s license pictures and vehicle registrations to a central server in Florida, which is managed by Seisint, a private data-aggregation firm based in Boca Raton.
In return, state law enforcement agents are granted a number of licenses to query the system. Officers also get access to information derived from Seisint’s proprietary database, which includes voter rolls, property records, website registrations, civil and criminal court records, phone number directories and financial filings.
Privacy advocates have criticized the system, saying it enables law enforcement officials to conduct electronic searches of citizens without any evidence of wrongdoing. Responding to this criticism, Connecticut’s Public Safety Commission and a Utah committee held public hearings on the Matrix in early February. Seven states, including Utah and Georgia, have already pulled out or suspended participation, partly because of privacy concerns, in addition to legal issues and projected future costs.
The controversial tool is necessary for fighting terrorism and crime, and simply gives investigators faster access to data they already had the right to see, according to Florida’s Chief of Investigation Mark Zadra. The system is essential for fast wild-card searches in terrorist or child-abduction cases, he said.
For example, if witnesses to a kidnapping remember a white man driving a blue van with a Florida license plate, but only saw part of the plate number, an officer could instantly search the Matrix for all blue vans with a “T” and a “3” in the plate number, registered in Florida to a white male.
Civil libertarians say the system is more powerful than that, however. It could be used in data-mining dragnets, which sound good on paper, but also put many innocent people under surveillance.
Michael Trinh, a policy analyst for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says the program grew out of a Florida data-mining effort that searches through financial records to identify money laundering. The Matrix was originally billed as a way to catch terrorists before they attacked.
“It’s more than a better Google, which is their counterclaim,” Trinh said. “You can plug any Web-accessible database into Matrix, and to me, that’s where the danger lies, because you can plug in data that shouldn’t be there. As the public sees what’s going on, they realize this is an another incarnation of – or at least something that smells like – Total Information Awareness.”
Total Information Awareness was an experimental program by an arm of the Pentagon that sought to create a massive government database that tapped into thousands of smaller databases run by government agencies and private companies. The goal was to look for telltale transactions and activities to spot terrorists and criminals preemptively. But the goal of the program was so vague and its reach so discomforting that Congress voted to ban funding for the program last year (although the government is still funding similar programs and tools).
But Zadra, and the Matrix’s website, are adamant that no predictive data mining is involved.
“TIA was based on calculations and algorithms, and at night it goes in there and it runs that and comes back and says this 5 percent (of the query results) are terrorists,” Zadra said. “We are not doing that.”
Other states, including Iowa and North Carolina, are also said to be looking into joining the Matrix. An Iowa official said the state was evaluating the program’s benefits but was not close to making a decision. An official in North Carolina said the state had only asked for some information about the program, and that there were no serious discussions under way about joining the program.
Matrix officials have reserved 500 licenses for federal agencies and joint terrorism task forces – which have requested to be included – in hopes of convincing the Department of Homeland Security to fund the effort for all 50 states in the future.