Gov. Olene Walker has pulled the plug on the state's participation in the controversial MATRIX database at least until a joint governor- legislative oversight committee can hold public hearings about the program that collects comprehensive dossiers on every resident.
"In the interest of the public and in the interest of privacy concerns, we need to take a serious look at it," Walker said Thursday at a press conference with Department of Public Safety Commissioner Robert Flowers and Department of Corrections Director Mike Chabries. "When it becomes a concern to the public, we need to do so," the governor said.
The announcement came in the wake of a copyright Deseret Morning News report that former Gov. Mike Leavitt had signed Utahns up for the pilot information-sharing program without informing state lawmakers or other state leaders. The state received $22,000 in federal money to help transfer selected state databases to a central database operated by a Florida company.
Flowers said state officials planned to inform state lawmakers once they were satisfied it was working and worthwhile, and because they would need lawmakers to fund a request for $2 million to $3 million to implement MATRIX.
MATRIX has raised concerns across the nation among conservative groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, all of whom are distrustful of government and the potential abuse of the information collected about residents.
Officially, Utah provides MATRIX with only criminal history information, driver's license records, Department of Correction offender records and images, and motor vehicle title and registration information, Flowers said. The state database with the 57,044 Utahns who have concealed weapons permits, which is available to law enforcement but not to the general public, is not yet among those provided to MATRIX.
But there are scores of other public databases that can and are being "mined" by private companies for sale to super databases like MATRIX. Those databases include detailed financial information, vital statistics like birth, death and marriage records, real estate transactions, credit histories, hunting and fishing licenses, and a host of other public records.
MATRIX could have that information on Utahns, Flowers admitted.
"But as a state, we are not gathering that information," Walker insisted.
MATRIX was initiated by the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a means for law enforcement officers around the nation to communicate faster and more effectively (only law officers have access to MATRIX). All of the information in MATRIX was accessible to law enforcement officers before, "but this lets us do it faster," Flowers said.
Flowers worked with Leavitt, who was on President Bush's homeland security task force, to initiate Utah's involvement in the pilot program, along with 13 other states. Many of those states have since dropped out of the program because of financial and privacy concerns.
"It was approved by Gov. Leavitt with my support," he said.
Flowers called it a good program with good crime-fighting potential. But he also said "the public needs to be made comfortable" with it. The public's potential discomfort with the program was "an issue since the inception of this," he added.
As of 2 p.m. Thursday, Walker ordered the state to stop its participation until "we can fully understand it and get additional information and get local oversight."
Leavitt apparently signed Utah up for the MATRIX project last June, and Walker said the state began the program in mid-December. Leavitt could not be reached for comment Thursday, but his former spokeswoman, Natalie Gochnour, who now works with Leavitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, said she indicated to her that MATRIX was a "planning effort," and referred all calls about it to Verdi White, the head of Utah's homeland security effort.
That might not be good enough for lawmakers who want answers as to why Leavitt kept it a secret from them. And lawmakers may want to know if it really works.
Rep. Morgan Philpot, R-Sandy, opened two bill files Thursday, the last day to introduce legislation in the 2004 Legislature. "If we need a legislative response to MATRIX, we need to do something now," he said.
A noted conservative, Philpot said he's troubled by what state government may be doing, and why other states opted out of the MATRIX pilot program but Utah didn't.
"If we have data collection (on citizens) without legislators or citizens knowing about it . . . well, that's wrong. We need to know why this happened and a valid reason for it," said Philpot.
He opened a resolution file, a way to ask Walker and other state executives for answers if need be. He also opened a bill file, in case there should be a law. "Together, I'm calling them MATRIX unplugged," he joked, a play on the titles of a recent series of sci-fi futuristic thrillers with evil super computers that take over the earth.
He then said there are serious questions to be answered: "Should we end MATRIX in Utah? What information did we give it? And more importantly, can we get any or all of it back and have the federal data banks purged?"
Meanwhile, Rep. Chad Bennion, R-Murray, while not knowing about MATRIX, has already introduced a bill aimed at better informing legislative leaders about the grants the state seeks and accepts from the federal government.
HB231 is a three-tiered approach, said Bennion, who added he is also concerned about what information MATRIX has given out. The bill says:
Any grant from $0 to $1 million that has no new employees needed to conduct the federally funded grant program must be approved personally by the governor, and state agency heads could no longer make those calls themselves.
Any grant from $1 million to $10 million or has any new employees requires the governor to inform the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee of the grant application before it is accepted, and allows top lawmakers to nix the grant.
Any grant or federal program more than $10 million requires specific approval by the entire Legislature, either in a general or special session, before it is accepted.
While aimed at controlling ongoing costs of federal grant programs that could shift to the state when the grant ends, HB231 would still be a way "of letting (legislators) know what grants we're even considering," said Bennion.