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Several states embrace MATRIX

Others, like Utah, decide to pull program's plug

Published: Sunday, Feb. 1 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

NEW YORK — Although privacy worries led several states to pull out of a federally funded crime and terrorism database project, others are actively considering joining and thereby sharing information on their residents, the Associated Press has learned.

Mark Zadra, chief investigator for Florida state police, which runs the MATRIX project, said organizers have given presentations to more than 10 Northeastern and Midwestern states in recent weeks, arguing at each stop that the database is an invaluable law enforcement tool.

Officials in Iowa and North Carolina said Friday that they are exploring the system. And documents obtained through a public-records request in Florida indicate Arizona and Arkansas also may have interest in the quick-access information repository, which combines state records with 20 billion pieces of data held by a private company.

For now, MATRIX — short for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange — involves Florida, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Michigan.

In a copyrighted story Thursday, the Deseret Morning News detailed Utah's involvement in the program. Before that, Utah political leaders say they were unaware of Utah's participation, which was approved by former Gov. Mike Leavitt. Later Thursday, Utah governor Olene Walker said she is halting the state's participation and appointing a panel to examine security and privacy issues.

Another state once involved, Georgia, said Friday it is now dropping out completely — after the AP confronted officials with documents indicating the state was continuing to participate despite a public proclamation to the contrary in October from Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Law enforcement officials say MATRIX is an ultra-efficient way for investigators to get information about suspects that authorities previously had to obtain from disparate sources. They insist it includes only public records and does not make predictions about crime or terrorism.

But privacy advocates say MATRIX gives law enforcement too much access to private details on millions of people, resembling the Pentagon terrorism data-mining program that drew public rebuke and lost Congressional funding last year.

The likelihood of MATRIX expansion remains hard to gauge.

Bill Shrewsbury, a vice president at Seisint Inc., the company that maintains the database, said he expects five or six more states to join the program, though he would not specify which ones.

"I've never shown it to any law enforcement people who didn't say: 'My goodness, this is unbelievable technology. It makes our job so much easier,'" said Shrewsbury, a former agent with Florida state police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

He added, however, that if too much controversy follows the project, "all bets are off."

The minutes of a MATRIX board meeting held Nov. 5 in Atlanta show the attendance of representatives from the seven states participating in MATRIX at the time, as well as the federal departments of Homeland Security and Justice, and four other states — Arizona, Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia.

Officials in West Virginia and Colorado said Friday their states had since decided not to participate. West Virginia cited the cost.

MATRIX was launched with $12 million in federal funds, but the documents obtained by the AP indicate each participating state could be forced to spend as much as $1.8 million per year. Shrewsbury said the long-term cost could be significantly lower.

Arizona's top cop, Dennis Garrett, signed a detailed MATRIX security agreement Dec. 16 that paves the way for police in eight Western states to connect to the MATRIX if they choose, through a secure computer network that they share and Arizona oversees. But Arizona officials did not say whether the state remains interested in MATRIX for itself.

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