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Feds Exit the Matrix

Federal funding for the controversial MATRIX program— which linked state criminal justice databases with information from commercial databases—has expired, but the program doesn’t appear to be dead.

After being launched in January 2002 and funded by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, MATRIX (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange) was at one time adopted by more than a dozen states. It had, however, been abandoned by all but four when funding ran out. Reasons states gave for exiting MATRIX included ancillary costs and privacy concerns.

Now, Florida and Ohio—two of the four states that remain in MATRIX—say they will continue operating the database using state funds. The other two states, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, could follow suit.

MATRIX allows law enforcement to compile a comprehensive database on persons in their jurisdictions by pulling together information from disparate public records, such as vehicle information numbers and dates of birth. It also incorporates data from commercial sources that is widely available, such as phone numbers from telephone directories. The database can be searched by name or various other data elements, allowing police to amass a comprehensive picture or profile of any person of interest in an investigation.

MATRIX officials at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) say that the system has helped track down criminals, including murderers, child abductors, and narcotics distributors.

Civil liberties groups have opposed the program, calling it a new iteration of the Total Information Awareness program, which was quashed after a torrent of privacy concerns were raised. One fear was that authorities would use the data to track the activities of political activists who are not suspected of crime or terrorism.

“The end of federal funding for MATRIX represents a victory for the public,” says Melissa Ngo, staff counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

But civil liberties advocates have misconstrued what MATRIX can do, according to FDLE spokesperson Tom Berlinger. Some privacy advocates didn’t bother to see it for themselves, adds Phil Ramer, a senior research associate at the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, which has helped coordinate MATRIX.

In Ohio, law enforcement officials have found MATRIX to be a “powerful tool” that has helped narrow investigations, says Bob Beasley, spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro. He emphasizes that the information on the system is already available to Ohio law enforcement, just not in agglomerated form. And commercial data in MATRIX is already publicly available anyway, Beasley adds.

What about the possibility—an oft-stated concern of critics—that law enforcement will rely on incorrect public information that the subject didn’t have the chance to correct? In fact, MATRIX will help correct bad information, Ramer contends, because police will want to verify information before they rely on it to back criminal charges.

“You have to authenticate evidence to prove your case,” says Ramer, former head of intelligence for the FDLE. Any bogus information wouldn’t stand that scrutiny, he adds.

MATRIX may yet return to the federal level. Ramer considers it likely that Justice and Homeland Security will eventually reconsider it. “This or something like it will eventually be adopted at the federal level,” he says.