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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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. [Privacy Digest]