It sounds like a sci-fi thriller: a super computer program that gathers dossiers on every single man, woman and child everything from birth and marriage and divorce history to hunting licenses and car license plates. Even every address you have lived at down to the color of your hair.
It sounds surreal, but former Gov. Mike Leavitt signed Utah's 2.4 million residents up for a pilot program ironically called MATRIX that does just that. And he never bothered to reveal details of the program to Utah citizens or to state lawmakers who, upon learning of the program on Capitol Hill this week, are now worried the state could be involved in a program that jeopardizes basic civil liberties.
"I am concerned our governor signed us up without ever talking to us, the people of the state" said Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park, who has asked legislative analysts to research whether the Legislature ever authorized state participation in the program. "If what I have heard is true, then I am concerned about our liberty and our privacy. It is a national identification card without ever carrying it."
Allen's concerns are shared by his GOP counterparts, who worry about government intrusion into people's private lives and the collection of comprehensive data on people who have committed no crime.
"It certainly sounds like Big Brother to me, a paranoia that government wants to know what all the people are doing because government knows best," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville. He had not heard of the program until queried by the Deseret Morning News. "I want to find out where the origin of it is in our state."
So does Gov. Olene Walker, who on Wednesday requested that the Utah Department of Public Safety provide her more information on MATRIX.
"It does appear to be something that began under Gov. Leavitt," said Walker's spokeswoman, Amanda Covington, who added, "Gov. Walker is very concerned about individual privacy, but she has been assured by the Department of Public Safety that is not an issue with MATRIX."
Attempts to reach Leavitt for comment on MATRIX were not successful.
House and Senate leaders either had never heard of MATRIX or, if the name was familiar, had no idea that conservatives and civil libertarians had any concerns over the new, super-information network.
MATRIX Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange is an intranet database regarded as the nation's largest cyber-compilation of personal records. It is touted as an efficient crime-fighting tool that allows agencies to access information with just a nimble fingertip.
Searchable databases allow law enforcement agents to probe for people using Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, property records, motor vehicle information and credit history. The information is collected by states and forwarded to a database in Florida, where a private company, Seisint Inc., builds and manages the database.
The program essentially cross-references government records from both public and private databases, putting together a dossier on individuals for use by law enforcement.
Verdi White II, the man Leavitt tapped to be the state's homeland security specialist, said any data gleaned for Utah's participation in MATRIX is information already available to law enforcement and in some cases the public. White said Utah's participation is at a limited level, and he described it as an "experiment."
"We will evaluate this and see if it does have value, if we are able to interdict a crime or apprehend an abducted child. If it does have value, we will go to the Legislature and see if they want to participate in it," he said. White said no cost analysis had been done about continuing the program past the end of the pilot project in August.
But MATRIX could turn into a conservative punching bag, like the old "smart card" proposal that would have allowed the Department of Public Safety to begin a "smart" driver's license that used electronic chips to store all kinds of information like an allergic reaction to certain antibiotics. And the state itself could put on the chip information like criminal history.
But conservatives came out of the woodwork, claiming the "smart card" could become a national I.D. card, containing all kinds of information that could be misused by authorities. The bill quickly died.
MATRIX could present the same ethical and political conundrums.
"It sounds like smart card but a lot scarier," said Gayle Ruzicka of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum. "In this case, people don't know their very personal information is available to law enforcement. I think we have been hoodwinked."
Ruzicka was familiar with the MATRIX controversy through e-mails with other conservatives around the country. But she had no idea Utah was a charter member of the program.
"Utah needs to get out of it. The question is who can get us out," she said.
Company officials are tight-lipped about what data it collects, and Utah officials have been mum about the extent to which the state is participating.
Utah was one of 13 states that hopped on board the pilot program last June funded with $12 million in federal grants. But since then, several states have pulled out of the project, citing privacy and financial concerns.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union both in Utah and the national headquarters in New York say they can't be sure how deep the state is involved because the state has ignored requests for information. "What is Utah collecting? We have been trying to find that out for weeks," said Jay Stanley, ACLU national spokesman.
Stanley said a Freedom of Information request was submitted Nov. 18, 2003, but there has been no reply. The Utah ACLU also submitted a state records request to learn what records are being compiled, who has access, the number of times MATRIX has been used, the circumstances under which it has been used and what procedures are in place to assure privacy.
"It seems to us this kind of system has enormous implications for American freedom," Stanley said. "It should not be like pulling teeth to get information about how it is going to work."
White said the information should be turned over to the ACLU this week and that officials had been in touch with ACLU attorneys.
Stanley worries that MATRIX combines private police records with commercially available data compiled by a multibillion-dollar industry that specializes in "data mining."
"They claim to cover 98 percent of Americans you, your neighbors, your family members, your demographics, your lifestyle and purchasing habits," he said.
It isn't clear whether legislative leaders would have even recognized those concerns within a federal grant to set up a test information-sharing program between the states and federal government.Comment on this story
House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said Leavitt "mentioned" the program to leaders as part of Homeland Security discussions last year. But MATRIX apparently was never brought to the Executive Appropriations Committee as a specific discussion, either last session or during the interim.
"I don't know a lot about it or how it works," said Stephens, "and I never heard of any of these concerns."
A bigger concern is that Big Brother could be watching every move, every purchase, every wrong turn."Do I want the government compiling all these records on me through a super database to come up with a dossier?" queried one legislative staffer who should have known about MATRIX but didn't. "Not only no, but hell no."