This weekly feature surveys top government IT-related news -- involving all levels of government, from the federal to state and local, and international news. It is designed to give readers a primer on current trends and developments affecting the industry's major and interesting players, surveying news headlines from around the world. Washingtonpost.com's Cynthia L. Webb pens the feature. E-mail Cindy Webb Cindy Webb's Daily Filter Column
The Tallahassee Democrat offered up a thorough report last Saturday on Seisint founder Hank Asher's questionable background. Asher, who demonstrated Matrix's powers to Vice President Cheney and the nation's other top security and law enforcement officials, "resigned from the company in August after the [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] questioned his background during negotiations on a $1.6 million state contract related to Matrix. Asher was identified as a pilot in several drug-smuggling cases prosecuted in the 1980s. He was never charged with a crime but became an informant for state and federal agencies."
Other outlets have reported on Asher's shady past too, but the Tallahassee article offered a twist in its piece, noting that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush "didn't know of the Boca Raton millionaire's drug involvement when he and then-FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore pitched Seisint to federal officials. Asked if he would have done so if he had known, Bush nodded. 'Yeah, because the company itself has a great piece of technology that has been used in the public sector and the private sector,' he said. 'It's a Florida-based company and during that time -- particularly after Sept. 11 -- it was important for policy makers to be aware of the kind of technology that would assist us in the fight against terror. So I would have done it.'"
The Matrix Revived?
Perhaps in a bid to win states back into the Matrix fold, the federal government wants to give states more control over the data they collect, according to a Washington Technology article that ran early this week. Long before the ACLU report was released, Matrix "ran into legal and political snags when many of the participating states became concerned that individual state laws would not allow them to transfer information about their citizens to the network's central repository in Florida. Some states also cited costs as a reason for leaving the project."
Now, Washington Technology said, "federal officials advising the Matrix board of directors propose a so-called distributed approach rather than a centralized approach to data storage for the network. Under the new approach, each state would have its own repository from which it could exchange information with other participating states. ... The information would not have to be exported from states that want to participate under the new model, said Bruce Edwards, a policy adviser with the Bureau of Justice Affairs."
Miami Herald columnist Jim Defede on Tuesday explained that the "ACLU sees the MATRIX and programs like it as being a threat to our rights of privacy. Asher, MATRIX's creator, responds by saying: 'The concept that a terrorist has an expectation of privacy is bizarre to me.' Unfortunately, Asher misses the point. It's not the rights of the would-be terrorist I'm worried about. It's the rest of us. What happens to the other people who wind up on these lists -- the vast majority of whom are not terrorists? The ACLU fears that once the lists are created, they will live on forever," the article said. "Asher says he is sympathetic to the ACLU's concerns. 'Do I think there is a danger if the data is in the wrong hands? Absolutely,' he says. 'But I think there is a bigger danger if the data is not in the right hands.'"
Data-Mining = $$
Seisint may get some competition when it comes to powering the government data-mining needs. The Washington Post reported that Matrix "[o]rganizers intend to ask other data services for proposals to create other Matrix-like systems later this year, in part to create competition, said Mark Zadra of the [Florida Department of Law Enforcement]. Currently, Matrix operates under a sole-source contract with Florida."
One company already on the scene is Knowledge Computing Corp. of Tucson, Ariz., maker of software called Coplink that scours crime records to help connect the dots between people and events. It uses data management and artificial intelligence technology. "It's a tool intended to help authorities investigate rapes, murders and other crimes far more quickly than they can today," the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World reported last August. "Coplink works by sifting through a database of all sorts of police records -- from traffic stops to murder investigations -- to deliver a list of leads in just seconds. The same kind of process now takes hours or even days of a detective's time -- when it is possible at all," the article explained. The company has posted a list of law enforcement agencies that are using its software.
"The software's powerful capabilities are a concern for Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., which monitors privacy issues. But Coplink doesn't cause him as much worry as other post-Sept. 11 law-enforcement database plans," the Journal World reported in its piece last year. "Because Coplink is geared toward processing information already in law enforcement's hands, 'there's less of a chance for fishing expeditions,' Schwartz said."
Pentagon as Privacy Advocate?
The Los Angeles Times yesterday wrote about the data-mining topic. One interesting nugget in the piece: "[A] soon-to-be-released report from a panel created by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recommends that the Defense Department take steps to ensure privacy when mining data to fight terrorism. The report also urges Congress to pass stronger privacy laws and calls on the courts and the president to take action to protect Americans in the face of new information-gathering technologies that make anti-terrorism privacy issues 'not the tip of the iceberg, but rather one small specimen in a sea of icebergs.'"
Slamming US Visit
The federal government's plans to create a system to track foreign visitors to the United States -- the Department of Homeland Security's US-Visit Program -- has raised the ire of technology columnist Dan Gillmor of The San Jose Mercury News. In a column this week, Gillmor says of the program: "In theory, the proposed system -- combining database mining, biometric tracking (including radio chips in passports) and other technological measures -- would help U.S. authorities spot some bad guys. In practice, it'll undoubtedly crumble under the weight of administrative woes and the vast number of 'false positives' (tagging innocent people as suspects) that will make identifying actual bad guys almost impossible. But even it did work, we would be wise to ask ourselves a few questions before spending those billions. Such as: Will this just be another deterrent to doing business? And: If we build a surveillance system that can track foreigners so efficiently, how long would it take for the same technology to be used to track American citizens? Various arms of government, notably state drivers licensing agencies at this point, are moving us surely toward a national ID card -- an internal passport."
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