Pa. helps test-drive database on crime But critics see program as potentially invasive. Pa. sticks with database effort

Posted: February 06, 2004

Efforts to build a national terrorism and crime database for police have slowed as more and more states raise privacy concerns about the federally funded project.

But one of the earliest proponents of the plan - the Pennsylvania State Police - remains committed to it.

A year ago, 13 states had signed on to the Matrix project, a $12 million program to create a mega-database of criminal and other publicly available records for local law enforcement. But only six states, including Pennsylvania, remain in the project, which began a test phase in November.

"I don't know that I would say interest is waning, but participation certainly is," said Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi, deputy commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Many states have dropped out following mounting criticism from privacy experts that Matrix looks too much like a controversial Pentagon program that was killed by Congress last fall.

The Pentagon program, called Total Information Awareness (TIA), would have enabled investigators to "mine" public and private databases to track the movements of terrorism suspects.

In comparison, Matrix - shorthand for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange - is more of a giant repository of data from state and commercial sources. Periandi said Pennsylvania is sharing criminal, vehicle and prison data with law enforcement agencies in Florida, Connecticut, Ohio, New York and Michigan.

He said all the agencies would be able to tap into 15 to 20 more databases of "publicly available" information, such as civil court files, bankruptcy filings, corporate data, property assessments and deeds, boat and plane registrations, and address information.

"These are records that we always have had access to," said Periandi, a member of the Matrix executive board. "This is just speeding up the process."

But privacy experts warn that Matrix, like TIA before it, could be abused by overzealous investigators trying to troll for terrorists among the electronic records of citizens.

"This is an effort to replicate at the state level something that Congress already said was unacceptable because of its ability to further shred any privacy that we have," said Stefan Presser, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Stephen Gale, a terrorism expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said there was a strong need to give law enforcement officers better information tools. "But given the public's expectations about privacy, it's very hard to see how we could put together any kind of information base that's any good or effective," he said.

Privacy concerns have led two states - Utah and Georgia - to drop out of the program in the last week.

Dan McLagan, a spokesman for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, said the governor had reservations about sharing information about driving records and vehicle identification. McLagan said the governor also did not want to spend state money to compile data for the service. After the pilot period, states will pay an annual fee for the Matrix program based on the number of participants.

"In the end, he didn't think it was appropriate to share personal data on law-abiding citizens," McLagan said.

Adrian King, deputy chief of staff for Pennsylvania Gov. Rendell, said the governor's office was keeping a close watch on the Matrix pilot but supported the concept.

"This is not just state police going ahead and doing this," King said. "We're very aware of what the ACLU is saying about misuse. But we also believe that, with appropriate safeguards in place, that this is a valuable tool to fight crime."

The idea for Matrix grew out of the post-9/11 realization among local and state law enforcement agencies that they lacked a critical tool for fighting terrorism: easy, fast access to information. To establish the program, the federal Justice and Homeland Security Departments provided $12 million in start-up funding.

Periandi of the Pennsylvania State Police said he was convinced of the merits of Matrix from the get-go. He said state law enforcement agencies have always shared information with each other for such things as vehicle registrations. But in the past, it was a time-consuming process, requiring individual calls to each state.

In 2002, Florida law enforcement had begun to construct a database with a private company, Seisint Inc., of Boca Raton, Fla.

Pennsylvania was among the first states to join the effort; New Jersey, however, is not participating. "We have our own intelligence database that is New Jersey-based," said Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Counter-Terrorism.

Periandi said Pennsylvania is providing Matrix with data in four categories: criminal records, prison data, sexual-offender information, and motor-vehicle registrations.

Periandi said Matrix would not include financial records, credit reports, medical records, or voter information. Periandi said only 24 officers and intelligence analysts in the Pennsylvania State Police are cleared to access Matrix - all of whom have gone through background checks and will be subject to periodic audits. There are no plans to increase the number of people with access, he added.

Periandi said Matrix works like this: A trooper stops someone for speeding, calls in the license and vehicle numbers, and learns that the person is the subject of an active investigation. At that point - and only at that point - an intelligence analyst at the Harrisburg headquarters may access Matrix to relay more information to the trooper.

"This is not designed to be utilized for every routine police contact," Periandi said.

Nor is it for fishing expeditions by law enforcement, he said. A name may be run through Matrix only if there is an active criminal or intelligence investigation.

The lack of participation from other states has not derailed the test, Periandi said, but it has had an impact.

"When you're in the middle of a controversy," he said, "it's going to be pretty difficult to get additional states to come in."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin

at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.

What will be on

the Matrix

Criminal records

Prison records

Vehicle registrations

Driver records

Sexual offender information

Bankruptcy records

Property deeds

Property assessments

Some civil court records

Aircraft registrations

Pilot records

Boat registrations

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|