Skip to comments.High-tech microscopes expose Americans' private lives
Posted on 11/12/2003 4:32:05 PM PST by mjp
Too many of us (accept) the argument that the concept of personal privacy in the Internet era is as outdated as the Model T.
Americans can get pretty upset about the ways in which modern technology drives us nuts such as telemarketers who disrupt our dinner and spam e-mailers who make pornographic sales pitches.
But a more insidious invasion of Americans' privacy quietly has taken root in Florida. It has received little attention from the media except in Florida and a handful of other states being recruited to join the enterprise (news - web sites). The project underscores how our fascination with technology blinds us to violations of our privacy and highlights the inadequacy of today's mishmash of federal and state privacy laws.
"MATRIX," an acronym for Multistate Anti-Terrorist Information Exchange, is, according to its creator, the largest database on the planet, with more than 20 billion records. Working with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and $12 million in federal funding, a company called Seisint designed MATRIX with the objective of compiling an electronic dossier on every citizen in the nation.
Not surprisingly, the cover story is that MATRIX is needed to fight terrorism. If that doesn't ping the strings of your patriotic heart, it's also being touted as the cat's meow when it comes to catching kidnappers and child molesters.
In fact, it is eerily similar to the Pentagon (news - web sites) scheme called Total Information Awareness, which Congress pulled the plug on this year. The brain behind MATRIX is wealthy Floridian Hank Asher, a computer whiz, big-bucks political donor, buddy of the recently retired FDLE head and according to newspaper reports a man who recently admitted to the FDLE that he smuggled drugs in the early 1980s.
The pitch to other states from FDLE and Seisint goes like this: Send us at your expense all your drivers' license and vehicle registration data on everybody, along with your criminal history files. We'll mix them in with other government and "commercially available" data that Seisint already has compiled. Then, we'll sell you access to the data for, say, $1.7 million a year. And don't fret: Except for law enforcement personnel in participating states, only about 20 Seisint employees will have access to the data. It'll be secure.
With the push of a button, according to Seisint and FDLE officials, MATRIX will spew out individuals' Social Security (news - web sites) numbers, pictures, birth dates, current addresses, old addresses going back 30 years, phone numbers and the names of others living at their addresses. Credit applications and credit reports, descriptions of properties they own, when they bought them, what they paid to whom, the property taxes paid, their driving histories and violations records and their driver's license and vehicle registration information all will be shown. So will the names, pictures, phone numbers, birth dates and addresses going back 20 to 30 years of their relatives, associates and neighbors.
My first reaction on reading this was that if anyone believes this kind of data would be secure in the hands of a private company, I'd like to sell them some choice oceanfront property I own in Kansas.
Then I read that the interim director of FDLE was prepared to do business with Asher's firm until the St. Petersburg newspaper questioned Asher's background. When the FDLE began to dig further into his past, Asher suddenly cut his ties with Seisint.
Fortunately, not everybody has been that sanguine. Georgia recently turned down FDLE's request for driver's licenses and vehicle registration information after the attorney general ruled it would violate state law and after reports about the program prompted a public outcry. One Georgia prosecutor who was given a demonstration of MATRIX, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, said, "It's incredibly impressive, but it's also very scary."
The good news is that of 14 states that joined MATRIX, several, including Oregon, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky and Louisiana, have pulled out, citing costs or privacy concerns.
That gets to the heart of the issue: Our fascination with technology has lulled too many of us into accepting the argument that the concept of personal privacy in the Internet era is as outdated as the Model T. The database hucksters also contend that most of this information already is available from one far-flung source or another and besides, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.
But you have plenty to worry about, starting with computer hackers and identity thieves, for whom MATRIX is a dream come true. You also have to worry about false information being peddled to any cop on a fishing expedition and having no way to correct it before you get caught up in a dragnet.
If the politicians in Washington and the statehouses could screw up the courage, there are two possible solutions. The first would be a law that makes personal information private property that cannot be bought or sold without the proprietor's consent. The other would be a law that says "crime fighting" databases cannot include detailed information about people who are not criminals.
Don't we already have laws that do that? The only federal statute that has much bearing is a 1999 law that lets you "opt out" of permitting financial institutions to share data about you. Some state laws are more restrictive or have different provisions. That's why we need new uniform federal or state laws.
As Gov. Sonny Perdue said after rejecting MATRIX: "We believe in Georgia people are innocent until proven guilty."
Don Campbell, a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors, lives in Atlanta.
"Scary" is an inadequate description of what could come to pass if databases like this are allowed to be constructed and used under the guise of "Fighting Terrorism" (or Drugs, or Tax Evasion, or...).
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