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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

Utah and the MATRIX

31 March 2004 Published in State Policy Work

Utah and the MATRIX MATRIX is the latest data mining program to emerge from the government. This surveillance system combines information about individuals from government databases and private-sector data companies. It then makes those dossiers available for search by government officials and combs through the millions of files in a search for “anomalies’ that may be indicative of terrorist or other criminal activity.

5/20/04: Homeland Security Department Funded, Managed ’state Run” MATRIX Surveillance Program. Documents released by the ACLU contain disturbing new revelations about the MATRIX database surveillance program

3/19/04: The ACLU of Utah sent a letter to the MATRIX oversight committee appointed by Governor Walker, requesting that it recommend Utah’s withdrawal from the MATRIX program. We also included draft legislation which would impose strict guidelines and enable public oversight of MATRIX if the state continued to participate in the data base.

News Update: On March 25, the MATRIX oversight committee made a formal recommendation to Governor Walker that Utah should withdraw participation in the MATRIX program.

Documents obtained by the ACLU show Utah had an important role in MATRIX

The MATRIX (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) system is a federally funded database that would combine over 20 billion records on individuals from government and private sources.

On November 18, 2003, the ACLU of Utah sent a formal request pursuant to the Utah Government Records and Management Act (GRAMA), to allow inspection of the public records held by the Utah Department of Public Safety regarding MATRIX.

The documents released to the ACLU, in February 2004, clearly show that the MATRIX program, created by Boca Raton, Florida, based Seisint Inc., includes much more than public records available to anyone on the Internet and is indeed a data-mining program that makes predictions about crime or terrorism.

"Supporters of this system have claimed that it does nothing more than make existing everyday police activities more efficient. We now know that is not the case," said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. "This is data mining pure and simple: the authorities compile information from numerous public and private sources and let a computer decide if you’re a threat. That capability is completely unprecedented in our history, and remains unrestrained by our legal system."

The documents also show that Utah was more then just a willing partner, it was a driving force behind the project.

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt not only signed Utah up for the controversial database without telling lawmakers or the public in advance, but he and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush were cheerleaders for the project, lobbying the nation’s 48 other governors on the virtues of MATRIX as a crime-fighting tool. The two briefed other governors on the project during a conference call referred to in February 6, 2003, MATRIX board minutes.

The documents reveal that the governor’s office has not consistently reported the timing of Utah’s involvement. In January, Governor Walker released a memo showing that Leavitt authorized Utah’s participation in December 2003. But records show he signed a previous agreement in November 2002.

State technology and public safety employees were volunteering their expertise almost a year prior to the state’s official participation, even inviting MATRIX to Utah to showcase how "Utah could be used to show some early successes for the project," wrote Roland Squire with the Utah Department of Public Safety.

"Utah would be happy to help with the MATRIX project in any way we can," he wrote in another e-mail to MATRIX officials.

The documents include correspondence between Utah officials and those putting MATRIX together, sales materials used to tout the program’s capabilities and persuade states to sign up for the program, and minutes of meetings held between MATRIX officials and the participating states.

Utah exploited the state’s award-winning Web site, which is operated by a private contractor and was seen as a model for secure information. One MATRIX official wrote in April 2003, "We have been discussing the suggestion . . . to have Utah take the lead in developing a framework for the secure Web component of MATRIX and think this is a very good idea."

A month later, Utah was ready with its prototype "that would interface with Florida and could be expanded out to include other systems as they become connected," wrote one MATRIX official.

The documents reveal Utah was second only to Florida in the development of MATRIX protocols and persuading other states to sign on. Furthermore, Doug Bodrero, the former commissioner of public safety in Utah, now heads the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, the nonprofit entity that funds MATRIX through federal grants.

Christopher Calabrese, a New York City-based attorney for the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, said of particular concern was a "social networking chart," which incorporates driver license photos and links to associates to compile dossiers on private citizens in seconds. "You can not believe this could happen in America," Calabrese said.

The program matches law enforcement files with private databases containing billions of public and commercial records from a wide variety of sources. And this has the ACLU fearing it violates privacy rights. Similar concerns have prompted 6 of the original 13 participating states to drop out.

Stephanie Peterson, Safe and Free advocate for the ACLU of Utah said, “Our concern about MATRIX is similar in many ways to our concerns about sections of the USA PATRIOT Act and raise the same issues among privacy advocates. Both programs make personal and financial information easily available for use by law enforcement that go beyond combating terrorism. They are based on the flawed and dangerous intelligence idea that to catch terrorists, the government needs to spy on people who have done nothing wrong.”

"The first step to treating every American like they could be a criminal is to start collecting information on people who have done nothing wrong." said Calbrese.

The trouble with MATRIX, said Calbrese, is the volume of data it contains, much of which was purchased unbeknownst to states by Seisint Inc. Seisint is the Florida information-technology company that developed the idea for MATRIX and landed a $1.6 million contract with that state’s Department of Law Enforcement to pilot it.

"We”ve always known the database contained billions of records," Calbrese said, "but we did not understand the breadth" until the new release of Utah records highlighting Seisint’s data inventory. That data include criminal histories from 4 states, correctional data from 33 states, sexual-offender lists from 27 states, driver licenses from 15 states and motor-vehicle registrations from 13 states.

"We”re probably talking about 90 percent of the country," said Calbrese.

Wisconsin and New York withdrew from the MATRIX on March 10, 2004, due to financial and ethical concerns. This leaves just Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Connecticut -- and possibly Utah -- out of the original 13 states who signed up for the program.

Governor Walker, who suspended Utah’s participation in the MATRIX on January 29, 2004, is waiting for recommendations from an oversight committee she formed, before taking further action on MATRIX.

A few facts of note:

  • The MATRIX contains 20 billion records from private databases. It is the largest database on the planet. (USA Today, 11/11/03)
  • It as already received $12 M in funding from the federal government. (USA Today, 11/11/03)
  • It is expected to cost $34 M annually to run and $1.7 M per state. (Palm Beach Post, 10/4/03)
  • Hank Asher, the founder of Seisint, has been implicated as a drug smuggler and it was Asher’s former company, Database Technologies, that administered the contract that stripped thousands of African Americans from the Florida voter rolls before the 2000 election, erroneously contending that they were felons. (Free Exchange Policy Project, quoting Lucy Morgan, "Troubled Business May Lose Contract with State," St. Petersburg Times, August 13, 2003)
  • And a competing data vendor, ChoicePoint, decided not to bid on the project, saying it lacked adequate privacy safeguards. (Toronto Globe & Mail, 9/24/03)
  • The project is billed as a tool for state and local police, but organizers are considering giving access to the Central Intelligence Agency, said Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s intelligence office. (Toronto Globe & Mail, 9/24/03)
  • Criminal history files in the database are maintained by 15 Seisint employees, watched over by Florida state police, Mr. Ramer said. Yet a Florida Department of Law Enforcement memo obtained by The Associated Press shows potential lapses in oversight. The memo says background checks on Seisint’s Matrix workers took place only last month, more than a year into the program, and a privacy policy governing the database’s use has yet to be finalized. (Toronto Globe & Mail, 9/24/03)

Click here for a state by state breakdown of involvement in the MATRIX >>