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What Is The MATRIX? ACLU Seeks Answers On New State-Run Surveillance Program

The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a “Freedom of Information Law” request with the New York State Police Department about New York’s participation in the new “MATRIX” database surveillance system. The request is part of a five-state initiative coordinated by the ACLU with the NYCLU and the Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania affiliates. The ACLU also released an Issue Brief explaining the problems with the program.

“Congress rejected the Pentagon’s ‘Total Information Awareness’ data mining program, but the federal government is trying to do an end run around Congress by creating a state-level equivalent that relies on a private company to aggregate and disseminate massive amounts of personal information,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU.

“The government is substituting the rejected Big Brother initiative with a lot of little brothers and New York has the right to know what is going on and object,” she added, noting that the program is receiving $12 million from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. “Government spying on the activities of innocent Americans is no more acceptable when it is performed by a couple of states collaborating with a private company than when the ‘spy’ is Uncle Sam.”

The ACLU / NYCLU requests, which were filed under individual states’ open-records laws, come on the heels of a federal Freedom of Information Act request filed by the ACLU on October 17. The goal of the requests is to find out what information sources the system is drawing on – information program officials have refused to disclose – as well as who has access to the database and how it is being used.

According to Congressional testimony and news reports, the MATRIX (which stands for “Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange”) creates dossiers about individuals from government databases and private-sector information companies that compile files on Americans’ activities for profit. It then makes those dossiers available for search by federal and state law enforcement officers. In addition, MATRIX workers comb through the millions of files in a search for “anomalies” that may be indicative of terrorist or other criminal activity.

While company officials have refused to disclose details of the program, according to news reports, the kind of information to be searched includes credit histories, driver’s license photographs, marriage and divorce records, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and the names and addresses of family members, neighbors and business associates.

Raising even more issues, the MATRIX is operated by a private company, Seisint Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida. Ironically, the company’s founder was forced to resign after buried information about his own past came to light: according to Florida police, he was formerly a drug smuggler who had piloted multiple planeloads of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S.

“Members of Congress who voted to close down TIA in the belief that they were ending this kind of data mining surveillance must demand more information about the MATRIX,” said Lieberman. “And then they should shut it down too.”

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