Feds offer to mend Matrix
States would retain control of information<@VM>What is Matrix?
- By William Welsh
- May 20, 2004
State law enforcement agencies have used the Matrix network to apprehend fugitives, although it's too early to know how many they've caught, said Jim Burch, deputy director for policy with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Affairs.
Henrik G. de Gyor
Federal officials are hoping to bolster support among states for an anti-terrorism information-sharing network with a new approach that would let each state keep greater control over its information.
Eleven of 16 states have withdrawn over the past year from the Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, known as Matrix, a federally funded pilot program to promote information sharing among state law enforcement agencies.
The pilot ran into legal and political snags when many of the participating states became concerned that individual state laws would not allow them to transfer information about their citizens to the network's central repository in Florida. Some states also cited costs 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 (R) 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 propose a so-called distributed approach rather than a centralized approach to data storage for the network. 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 of Justice Affairs.
The distributed approach to data storage would give states more ownership and 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 new approach also may let some states share information they previously could not because of limitations or restrictions by state laws, administrative rules or agency policies, he said.
The Homeland Security and Justice departments both sponsor the Matrix pilot, supporting it with $12 million in grants. The Institute for Intergovernmental Research, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based nonprofit research and training organization specializing in law enforcement and criminal justice, received the funding and oversees the project.
Law enforcement officials in the participating states tap into the anti-terrorism network and conduct searches using a software application known as the Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution, or Facts, which was developed by Seisint Inc. of Boca Raton, Fla.
The Matrix pilot is scheduled to run through November, when the institute will submit a final report, Justice Department and Matrix officials said.
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.
"It narrows the scope of the investigation very quickly," he said.
Unlike the states that withdrew, Pennsylvania does not have legal restrictions that keep it from sharing such information with other states, he said. The state purchased licenses for individual investigators to use Matrix.
The estimated annual cost to the state to participate is between $45,000 and $50,000 annually, he said.
States that participate in the pilot program are eligible for reimbursement of up to $25,000, Tunnel said. The cost structure may change if the distributed model is adopted and if the 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, Burch said. "It's too early to have numbers," he 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.
"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 its accuracy, Calabrese said.
"The supposed value is you can share information quickly," he said. "But it would be more valuable if it were accurate information."
Calabrese also said Seisint's claim that it has a unique algorithm for identifying suspected terrorists is inflated and 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 Seisint could not be reached for comment, but Tunnel said Matrix officials have always viewed Facts as just one tool, albeit a powerful one, to help them pursue leads.
"It has never been viewed as a substitute for human analytical or investigative expertise and savvy," he said. *
Staff writer William Welsh can be reached at email@example.com.
The Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, came about when a group of state law enforcement officials met in January 2002 to discuss domestic security problems.
These officials wanted to increase information sharing among all levels of law enforcement. They created a multistate coalition of law enforcement agencies, led by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Matrix was developed for Florida by Boca Raton, Fla.-based Seisint Inc., a maker of datamining products. Matrix combines information about persons and property from commercial databases with information from criminal records databases to identify potential terrorists.
Presently, Matrix is a proof-of-concept pilot project to let law enforcement agencies in different states share terrorism-related and other criminal information.
Matrix is run by a board of directors composed of law enforcement executives from those states participating. The board oversees the project's implementation and operation, including funding, expenditures and operational policies and procedures governing the sharing of information among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. It also guides coordination of those activities within the Regional Information Sharing System, or RISS.
The communications backbone for the Matrix project is the RISS secure intranet, called riss.net. Participating Matrix state law enforcement agencies may establish an electronic connection as a node on riss.net. End-user accounts are then enabled for authorized agencies.
One of the Matrix applications, the Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution, or Facts, lets officials search billions of state and public records. Facts contains information from criminal history, driver's license, vehicle registration and incarceration and corrections databases.
Investigators can conduct searches using incomplete information, such as a portion of a vehicle license number. Facts searches the system and assembles information matching the partial description.
Source: Institute for Intergovernmental Research
William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.