States, feds working to fix Matrix
- By William Welsh
- Jun 15, 2004
Under the new Matrix approach, each state would have its own repository from which it could exchange information.
Henrik G. de Gyor
State officials would keep greater control of their own information under a plan that federal officials hope will bolster support for an antiterrorism information-sharing network.
Eleven of 16 states have over the past year left the Multistate Antiterrorism Regional Information Exchange System, a federally funded pilot to promote information sharing among state law enforcement agencies.
The pilot ran into legal and political snags when several states became concerned that their laws would not allow them to transfer information about citizens to the network's central repository in Florida. Some states also cited cost as a reason for leaving the project.
'I understand law enforcement officials need to share information regarding criminal activity, but there are privacy and funding concerns I had to consider,' Utah Gov. Olene Walker, a Republican, said regarding the state's decision in January to withdraw from Matrix.
To address the legal concerns, federal officials advising the Matrix board of directors have proposed a distributed approach rather than a centralized approach to data storage. Under the new approach, each state would have its own repository from which it could exchange information with other participating states.
'We believe this is a huge step forward and would address a large portion of the privacy issues,' said Jim Burch, deputy director for policy with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Affairs.
The information would not have to be exported from states that want to participate under the new model, said Bruce Edwards, a policy adviser with the bureau.
The distributed approach would give states more control of their information and let them update it more frequently and efficiently, said Guy Tunnell, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and chairman of the Matrix executive committee.
The approach also may let some states share information they previously could not because of restrictions by state laws or policies, he said.
The Homeland Security and Justice departments sponsor the Matrix pilot, supporting it with $12 million in grants. The Institute of Intergovernmental Research, a nonprofit research and training organization in Tallahassee, Fla., specializing in law enforcement and criminal justice, received the funding and oversees the project.
Law enforcement officials in participating states tap into the antiterrorism network and conduct searches using Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution software developed by Seisint Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla.
The pilot will run through November, when the institute plans to submit a final report.
Law enforcement officials have access to data from other states, but Matrix lets them conduct preliminary investigations in minutes or even seconds instead of hours or days, said Lt. Col. Ralph Periandi, deputy commissioner of operations for the Pennsylvania State Police and the state's Matrix liaison.
Unlike the states that withdrew, Pennsylvania does not have legal restrictions that keep it from sharing such information with other states. The state purchased licenses for individual investigators to use Matrix at a total annual cost between $45,000 and $50,000.
States participating in the pilot program are eligible for reimbursement of up to $25,000 annually, Tunnell said. The cost structure may change if the distributed model is adopted and if participants switch to a competitive bid process when the pilot is over, he said.
Although no metrics are in place to measure Matrix's success to date, state law enforcement agencies have used the network to apprehend fugitives and to follow up on leads about terrorism. 'It's too early to have numbers,' Burch said.
The New York-based American Civil Liberties Union, an outspoken critic of Matrix, said the solution envisioned by government officials doesn't fix a system with basic flaws in both its concept and execution.Connections
'The way the Internet works, everything is available as a connection between databases, so their physical location is irrelevant,' said Christopher Calabrese, counsel for ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. 'If you can use the search [method], it is still one database. Putting it in separate locations doesn't solve any problems.'
ACLU doesn't have any problem with information sharing per se, Calabrese said. Rather, it is concerned that Seisint, the company that developed the algorithm by which Matrix processes and analyzes information, has been proceeding without legislative input or public debate, he said.
ACLU also believes people should be able to review information about themselves stored on Matrix to verify the accuracy of such information.
'The supposed value is you can share information quickly,' Calabrese said. 'But it would be more valuable if it were accurate information.'
He also said Seisent's claim that it has a unique algorithm for identifying suspected terrorists is inaccurate.
'We believe the entire method is flawed. Terrorists can't be identified by a quotient, and the process makes every American suspect,' Calabrese said. 'Terrorists are stopped by basic police work. Coming up with a computer program doesn't work. At this point, they've not convinced us.'
Officials at Seisent could not be reached for comment, but Tunnell said Matrix officials have always viewed Facts as just one tool, albeit a powerful one, to help pursue leads.
'It has never been viewed as a substitute for human analytical or investigative expertise and savvy,' he said.
William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.