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Sunday, June 06, 2004

washingtonpost.com: Privacy and The Matrix

washingtonpost.com: Privacy and The Matrix

Privacy and The Matrix


Barry Steinhardt
American Civil Liberties Union
Thursday, May 27, 2004; 2:00 PM


The "Matrix" system can sift through millions of personal records to find information in mere moments. The government says it is a vital tool against terrorism, but civil liberties advocates say it threatens privacy rights.

Barry Steinhardt, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Technology and Liberty, discussed the new program with washingtonpost.com reporter David McGuire.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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David McGuire: Hi Barry, thanks so much for joining us today. Reports of the Matrix system are setting off alarm bells again among civil libertarians, who fear the hunt for information on terrorists is encroaching the privacy rights of ordinary citizens. Can you tell us a little about Matrix and the ACLU's concerns with it?

Barry Steinhardt: Dave,

Thanks for inviting me. MATRIX (the Multistate Anti-TeRrorism Information eXchange) is the latest data-mining program to emerge from the government. This surveillance system combines information about individuals from government databases and private-sector data companies, and makes that data available for search by government officials to comb through in their words billions of files in a search for "anomalies" that may be indicative of terrorist or other criminal activity.

MATRIX is nominally a state program, but it has been funded by the Federal Department of Homeland Security, which entered into a 'cooperative agreement" with the Program that gives the Federal Government the ultimate control.

We are concerned that it will be used to cast suspicion on innocent Americans who will be subject to investigation or worse. In fact, the first application of the technology created a list of 120,000 supposed terrorism suspects that was widely distributed to government agencies.

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Arlington, VA: What do you think will happen with the GAO's findings that data-mining is happening on a large scale at government agencies? It seems there is a lot of outcry from privacy advocates, such as yourself, but little changes on how the government operates.

Barry Steinhardt: There is a growing interest in the Congress and even among some in the Executive Branch to adopt laws that govern how all the data that is now available to the government can be used -- in effect, to put some chains on the growing surveillance monster. I believe that there is still time to do that, but that the window of opportunity is closing fast.

It is too early to predict whether it will happen, but the Congressional defunding of the Total Information Awareness Program and the withdrawal from the MATRIX of 2/3 of the states that were originally part of the program gives me some cause for optimism.

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Port Washington, N.Y.: Greetings from the Island.

What other electronic programs does the federal government currently use that mine personal data to create/match/check dossiers? Are there similar programs at the state level? What about international level? Thanks.

Barry Steinhardt: According to a Government Accounting Office study being released today there are, at least, 199 government data mining programs. 54 of those use private data. That may only be the tip of the iceberg because GAO had to rely primarily on self reporting by the agencies and the intelligence agencies would not report at all.

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Ann Arbor, Michigan: Any theories on why the media in the 5 states that remain part of MATRIX have not pressed the issue like Utah or Georgia?

Barry Steinhardt: Actually, the media in most of the 5 remaining states -- especially in Florida and Michigan-- have been fairly aggressive about reporting on MATRIX. I suspect we haven't seen the end of the erosion of state support for MATRIX.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Is $8 million all that the government has spent on Matrix?

Barry Steinhardt: $8 million was the amount that DHS provided to the program, when it effectively took control of it. There was an earlier DOJ grant for $ 4 million and, of course, the states themselves have spent their own funds to provide data to the the MATRIX. We don't yet know those amounts.

In some ways this first year of actual operation of MATRIX has been a loss leader, where the states were not charged the real cost of the program. Concern about cost is something that apparently motivated several states to reconsider the MATRIX.

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Albany, New York: We spend billions on electronic profiling of every American, when any illegal alien has little or no trouble coming into our country. If we kept the bad guys out we wouldn't have to snoop on the good guys. Doesn't it seem like our priorities are backwards?

Barry Steinhardt: In many ways our approach to security is backwards. Instead of working out from the terrorists to find them and their contacts, we keep experimenting with programs like the MATRIX and CAPPS II ( the airline passenger profiling system) that comb through huge stores of data and treat all Americans as suspects to be eliminated.

CAPPS II is particularly troubling because it would conduct background checks on the 100 million Americans who fly every year. DHS has admitted that it will have a false positive rate (false accusations) of at least 4 %. That estimate may turn out to be low, but it means that at a minimum 4 million American travellers each year will become suspects. That is not only unfair, it makes no security sense. There can't be 4 million terrorists in this country or even the 120,000 that MATRIX found. We shouldn't be wasting our limited law enforcement resources on this dragnet approach.

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Chicago, IL: Could you explain a bit more about how the MATRIX system is intended to work? It's not clear from press descriptions whether it's simply a means of combining data from multiple databases so that law enforcement officials can search based on particular criteria, or whether it's intended to involve the sorts of pattern recognition and predictive modeling that TIA was intended to do. Recent reports of "terrorist scores" suggest maybe Seisint (sp?) had the latter in mind.

Barry Steinhardt: The answer appears to be that it is both a TIA style data mining operation that looks for patterns and a simple exchange of data about specific suspects among law enforcement.

The ACLU has filed more than 20 Freedom of Information Act requests regarding MATRIX. Most have been with the states, but some have been with the Federal Government (DHS). Remarkably DHS has been the least forthcoming with information.

The wealth of material that we have received so far-- we have posted the most relevant documents on our web site at http://www.aclu.org/Privacy/Privacy.cfm?ID=14240&c=130-- suggest that has been used in both ways. While MATRIX spokespeople claim they are not data mining a la TIA, they are still distributing documents trumpeting their ability to do that. Those documents are on our site.

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Washington, D.C.: Barry - Beyond the public policy issue of whether or not it's appropriate to include commercial data in a system like MATRIX or CAPPS II, it seems that there is a huge conflict of interest in having commercial data brokers design the underlying architecture of these systems because it creates a monopoly situation in terms of where govt. buys its data. Matrix seems to be designed to provide maximum revenue streams to Seisint rather than maximum value to the end user agencies and citizens it's supposed to help protect. Even Seisint acknowledged in the materials ACLU obtained via FOIA that essentially the most valuable data is already owned by govt - ie. arrest records, sex offender lists, drivers licenses, vehicle registrations, etc. Companies like Acxiom, Choicepoint and Seisint have sold govt. on the belief that if you don't buy their data, the next Mohamed Atta will fall through the cracks. In fact, many of the terrorists were already in existing law enforcement databases. Can you comment on these issues?

Barry Steinhardt: The exchange of data between the public and private sectors is very troubling. First, it raises questions of conflict of interest among the group of private corporations that are selling private personal data and the technology to mine it to the government. Are they "patriots" or effectively war on terrorism profiteers. Second, it has given the government an ability to use private data, like credit information, that it could not require Americans to provide it with. Imagine a police station, where there were paper files on every resident of a town that contained intimate private and governmental data. That is essentially what MATRIX does. Lastly, there are essentially no controls on how the private companies can use the product of this merger of governmental and private data.

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Pennsauken, N.J.: What technological steps can our government take that can increase our ability to stop a terrorist incident in the United States without offending the ACLU's sense of privacy? Where is that nexus?

Barry Steinhardt: Plenty and high tech isn't always neccessary. For example, early on -- well before September 11-- we pointed out that airplane cockpit doors needed to be secured. It is a simple step, but unfortunately it was not taken until after September 11. Had the cockpits been secured before September 11 some of the tragedy might have been averted.

Similarly, we have not objected to the use of devices like explosive detectors in our transit systems or better communications capabilities for law enforcement officers, so they can exchange hard information about crimes or the threat of violence.

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Vienna, VA: Media reports indicate that the Seisint people were able to get a meeting with vice president Cheney and they got their funding for Matrix. Acxiom - the company behind CAPPS II also had a meeting like this according to reports in Salon.com and Fortune Magazine. Do you think Homeland Security contracts are for sale to companies with political connections and that privacy is an afterthought?

Barry Steinhardt: We need hard questions about whether a new technology or program is going to work. Is it going to actually make us appreciably safer or simply enrich the sellers and allow the government to offer us the illusion of security.

As I sit here in New York typing this response, I am about 8 blocks from the World Trade Center. Like most New Yorkers, I know people who were at the Trade Center that day. Most made it out alive. One did not.

The threat of terrorism is very real to me and I find it galling that we are being asked to sacrifice our liberties for a false sense of security.

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David McGuire: Unfortunately we're out of time. I'd like to thank Barry Steinhardt for taking the time to join us, and our audience for asking so many thoughtful questions.

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