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Dossier program alarms Utahns

By Jerry D. Spangler, Amy Joi Bryson and Bob Bernick Jr.
Deseret Morning News

Published: Thursday, Jan. 29 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

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.