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Government IT Review - Cynthia L. Webb
Total Information Dilemma


_____Review Archive_____
America's Digital Welcome Mat (, Jun 3, 2004)
Grading E-Government (, May 20, 2004)
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The ACLU appears to be most concerned about how Seisint was able to generate a list of 120,000 terrorist suspects and whether or not the current Matrix system continues to prowl through personal data to see if other Americans fit a terrorist profile is what really has the ACLU's hackles up. "We believe the entire method is flawed. Terrorists can't be identified by a quotient, and the process makes every American suspect," Christopher Calabrese, counsel for ACLU's technology and liberty program, told Washington Technology. "Terrorists are stopped by basic police work. Coming up with a computer program doesn't work. At this point, they've not convinced us."

The Miami Herald last Thursday reported that "MATRIX in its current state contains nothing police can't get from other sources, ACLU officials acknowledge. Still, the fact that it once used other 'investigative data' to compile lists of potential terrorists is cause for concern," the ACLU's Barry Steinhardt told the paper. "'It could be reactivated at any time. We're saying the federal government should cut off all funding to the program,' he said. MATRIX denies any intent to continue making lists of potential terrorism suspects."

The ACLU has posted a lot information about Matrix on its a Web site, including the full report of its investigation. The ACLU specifically called on Homeland Security privacy czar Nuala O'Connor Kelly to investigate the agency's involvement in the Matrix program. Meanwhile, the ACLU also issued a statement praising the newly released GAO report on government-wide data-mining programs.

Steinhardt joined for a Live Online discussion today about Matrix and other government data-mining projects.

"High Terrorist Factor"

The Associated Press was the first outlet last week to report on federal involvement in the Matrix program. As the piece makes clear, Seisint's method for scanning data for signs of terrorist tendencies is what stoked the federal government's interest. "Public records obtained by The Associated Press from several states show that Justice Department officials cited the scoring technology in appointing Seisint sole contractor on the federally funded, $12 million project. Seisint and the law enforcement officials who oversee Matrix insist that the terrorism scoring system ultimately was kept out of the project, largely because of privacy concerns. However, new details about Seisint's development of the 'terrorism quotient,' including the revelation that authorities apparently acted on the list of 120,000, are renewing privacy activists' suspicions about Matrix's potential power," The AP reported.

The Matrix supporters, however, indicated to the AP that the system no longer uses the scoring system used to develop the controversial terrorist watch list. "Bill Shrewsbury, a Seisint executive and former federal drug agent, said the terrorism scoring algorithm that produced the list of 120,000 names was 'put on the shelf' after it was demonstrated immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. He said the scoring system requires intelligence data that was fed into the software for the initial demonstration but is not commonly available. 'Nor are we interested in pursuing that,' he said," the AP reported.

A pick-up of The AP article by Dow Jones Newswires gave more details on how the terrorism-rating quotient netted results for Matrix and Seisint. "Although Seisint says it shelved the scoring system -- known as high terrorist factor, or HTF -- after the original demonstrations in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the algorithm was touted well into 2003. A records request by the AP in Florida turned up 'briefing points,' dated January 2003, for a presentation on Matrix to Vice President Dick Cheney and other top federal officials delivered jointly by Seisint, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida's top police official. One of the items on Seisint's agenda: 'Demonstrate HTF with mapping.' Matrix meeting minutes from February 2003 say Cheney was briefed along with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and FBI Director Robert Mueller."

Trust Us

The Web site for the Matrix program has a page listing "misconceptions" about the program. Top items on its list of facts intended to correct the public record? "MATRIX is controlled by the participating states and not a vendor," and, "MATRIX is not a data mining application."

The Matrix site also has a list of the five states currently participating in the project, along with a spring 2004 newsletter offering more clarifications. The site bills Matrix as a "pilot information sharing project" that is designed to help with the exchange of "sensitive terrorism and other criminal activity information between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies."

Guy Tunnell, head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and chairman of the Matrix executive committee, fired off a letter last year in response to a Florida Today article on Matrix. Excerpt: "MATRIX is an improved 'tool' for investigators, not a substitute for the investigation itself. It is investigator-driven, not automatic. The system does not allow indiscriminate surveillance of one's activities and it does not 'monitor' individuals. Inquiries will be driven by actual criminal investigations or by reason of following up on active criminal intelligence or domestic security threat information, and the use of MATRIX will be monitored to guard against inappropriate or unauthorized use. MATRIX simply provides access to information in a centralized fashion that is already available to investigators at individual sites today." See the complete letter on the Matrix Web site.

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