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The Matrix (Interstate Snoop, Not the Movie)


Remember Admiral John Poindexter’s proposed Total Information Awareness (TIA) Program, the one which was going to mine all available electronic data on you and me, make it into a nifty profile, and put it out there for the government to use to track “terrorists”? I thought of it as a government “in search of” ad: “In search of petite red-head who has a sharp tongue and writes about John Ashcroft; likes dogs and gardening; listens to everything from Brahms to Blues; may not be armed, but should be considered dangerous.” Search the data base for all redheads with one or two of the “points” on the profile, then sweep in. Detain for questioning. Find something they did wrong in their pasts, charge them to the max, threaten with enemy combatant status if they don’t plead, sentence redheads to 10 years in prison.

Even our pitiful excuse of a Congress did not like TIA. (Speaking of pitiful, did you read how they all slobbered over Arnold Schwarzenegger this week? Even Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said “all is forgiven” as she stood in line for his autograph when he visited the Hill.) So they cut it from the Homeland Security Department Budget, kicked Poindexter out of his cushy Pentagon office, and sent him out to private industry to do his mischief there.

Well, TIA is not gone. It has morphed into MATRIX, an interstate electronic data base started by the State of Florida (of course, money to baby brother Jeb), with FEDERAL FUNDS, that involves states’ pooling first their criminal database. Then, who knows what else will go into the mix.

The ACLU is hot on the trail of MATRIX. On October 30 it filed simultaneous state “Freedom of Information Act” requests in Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania about those states’ participation in the new “MATRIX” database surveillance system. It also released an Issue Brief explaining the problems with the program, which also operates in Florida and Utah.

“Congress killed the Pentagon’s ‘Total Information Awareness’ data mining program, but now the federal government is trying to build up a state-run equivalent,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.

“In essence, the government is replacing an unpopular Big Brother initiative with a lot of Little Brothers,” he added, noting that the program is receiving $12 million from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. “What does it take for the message to get through that government spying on the activities of innocent Americans will not be tolerated?”

The ACLU’s requests, which were filed under individual states’ open-records laws, come on the heels of a federal Freedom of Information Act request it filed October 17. A similar request was also filed in Florida, where the program originated. The goal of the requests is to find out what information sources the system is drawing on – information program officials have refused to disclose – as well as who has access to the database and how it is being used.

According to Congressional testimony and news reports, The Matrix (which stands for “Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange”) creates dossiers about individuals from government databases and private-sector information companies that compile files on Americans’ activities for profit. It then makes those dossiers available for search by federal and state law enforcement officers. In addition, Matrix workers comb through the millions of files in a search for “anomalies” that may be indicative of terrorist or other criminal activity.

While company officials have refused to disclose details of the program, according to news reports the kind of information to be searched includes credit histories, driver’s license photographs, marriage and divorce records, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and the names and addresses of family members, neighbors and business associates.

Raising even more issues, the Matrix is operated by a private company, Seisint Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida. Ironically, the company’s founder was forced to resign after information about his own past came to light: according to Florida police, he was formerly a drug smuggler who had piloted multiple planeloads of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S.

“Members of Congress who voted to close down TIA in the belief that they were ending this kind of data mining surveillance must demand more information about The Matrix,” said Steinhardt. “And then they should shut it down too.”

Copies of the ACLU’s state and federal FOIA requests as well as the Issue Brief about The Matrix are online.

View a special Web feature about the defunct TIA program at this ACLU site.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. She can be reached at:


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