Police in Florida are creating a counterterrorism database designed to give law enforcement agencies around the country a powerful new tool to analyze billions of records about both criminals and ordinary Americans.
Organizers said the system, dubbed Matrix, enables investigators to find patterns and links among people and events faster than ever before, combining police records with commercially available collections of personal information about most American adults. It would let authorities, for instance, instantly find the name and address of every brown-haired owner of a red Ford pickup truck in a 20-mile radius of a suspicious event.
The state-level program, aided by federal funding, is poised to expand across the nation at a time when Congress has been sharply critical of similar data-driven systems on the federal level, such as a Pentagon plan for global surveillance and an air-passenger-screening system.
The Florida system is another example of the ongoing post-Sept. 11 debate about the proper balance between national security and individual privacy. Yesterday the District and the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to launch a pilot law enforcement data-sharing network that will include Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.
Paul S. Cameron, president of Seisint Inc., the Boca Raton, Fla., company that developed the Matrix system and donated it to the state, said: "It is exactly how law enforcement worked yesterday, except it's extraordinarily faster. In this age of risks that appear immediately, you have to be able to respond immediately."
Some civil liberties groups fear Matrix will dramatically lower the threshold for government snooping because other systems don't allow searches of criminal and commercial records with such ease or speed.
"It's going to make fishing expeditions so much more convenient," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that monitors privacy issues. "There's going to be a push to use it for many different kinds of purposes."
The Justice Department has provided $4 million to expand the Matrix program nationally and will provide the computer network for information sharing among the states, according to documents and interviews. The Department of Homeland Security has pledged $8 million, state officials said.
At least 135 police agencies in the state have signed up for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement database service, which began operation more than a year ago. At least a dozen states — including Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan — said they want to add their records.
In some ways, Matrix resembles other data-driven counterterrorism initiatives started since the 2001 attacks. The Pentagon's controversial Terrorism Information Awareness program also sought to use personal data in new ways, but on a far larger scale. The idea, started by retired admiral John Poindexter, was to create a global data-surveillance system that might find subtle signs of imminent threats. Lawmakers sharply limited the program's funding several months ago, and now some intend to shut it down.
A Justice Department document from early this year describes Matrix as an effort "to increase and enhance the exchange of sensitive terrorism and other criminal activity information between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies." Matrix organizers met several times with Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), while he was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to discuss the system's development.
Matrix is short for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. The name was chosen somewhat whimsically by a Florida law enforcement officer, an agency official said. Florida officials say the system will be used only by authorized investigators under tight supervision. They said it includes information that has always been available to investigators but brings it together and enables police to access it with extraordinary speed.
Technical challenges include ensuring that data are accurate and that the system can be updated frequently.
"The power of this technology — to take seemingly isolated bits of data and tie them together to get a clear picture in seconds — is vital to strengthening our domestic security," said James "Tim" Moore, who was commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement until last month.
A senior official overseeing the project acknowledged it could be intrusive and pledged to use it with restraint. "It's scary. It could be abused. I mean, I can call up everything about you, your pictures and pictures of your neighbors," said Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of statewide intelligence. "Our biggest problem now is everybody who hears about it wants it."
The Matrix project began soon after the 2001 attacks. Seisint founder Hank Asher, a wealthy data entrepreneur, called Florida police and claimed he could pinpoint the hijackers and others who might pose a risk of terrorist activity. "Asher says, 'I'll develop this for free,' " Ramer said.
Working without a contract or pay, Asher set about creating the system in Florida, Ramer said. "We showed it to the other states, and the other states went nuts." They came up with an idea of a search engine called "Who" that would be at the core of the "concept as a national intelligence project," he said.
Ramer added that he's never seen so powerful a system in his many years in law enforcement. To replicate it "we'd have to go to 10,000 systems," he said. "It would just take you forever."
In 1999, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI suspended information service contracts with an earlier Asher-run company because of concerns about his past, according to law enforcement sources. The Chicago Tribune reported in 1987 that court documents in a federal drug case said defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey, who identified Asher as a pilot and onetime smuggler, offered him as an informant.
Jennie Khoen, a spokeswoman for the Florida department, said yesterday that the agency knew about Asher's "history with drug smuggling," including his work as an informant. Moore said his department "knew about Mr. Asher's past."
"We were aware of his informant activity," Moore said. "But we were also aware he had never been arrested or charged."
Because of the renewed questions about his past and because the state is entering into a contract for the Matrix services, Khoen said "it is prudent and responsible for us to do a comprehensive review of his background."
The Florida legislature just allocated $1.6 million to begin paying Seisint for its work.
Asher didn't respond to several requests for interviews.
Seisint's Cameron said people should focus on the value of the technology for fighting terrorism and crime. He said privacy fears are overblown because Matrix relies on the same records that police have always had access to.
Asher has also donated services to the FBI, the Secret Service and other agencies. And authorities credit Seisint with helping to turn up links among the hijackers who slammed planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and to some of their associates.
The Secret Service, the FBI, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service gave Asher letters of commendation last year. They are prominently displayed as awards on Seisint's Web site. Spokesmen at the FBI and the Secret Service said the letters are routinely given as thank-you notes to hotels and other companies that help their agencies.
Former Secret Service head Brian Stafford recently went to work as a senior executive at Seisint.
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© 2003 The Washington Post Company
This is a CIR-assisted report. On leave from The Washington Post, O'Harrow is presently receiving support from CIR for his investigation of post-September 11 government surveillance, which will result in a book to be published by Free Press in 2004.