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WASHINGTON ? They could call it MATRIX Reloaded. Less than a year after Utah Gov. Olene Walker pulled the plug on the supercharged crime-fighting computer known as MATRIX, the U.S. Congress is poised to implement its own national information-sharing network that would link hundreds upon hundreds of government and commercial databases. Its goal: To fight terrorism. The National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 ? currently being debated in the Senate ? contains a provision for an "Information Sharing Network" to coordinate data from "all available sources." Citing the findings on the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, the bill states, "The effective use of information, from all available sources, is essential to the fight against terror and the protection of our homeland. The biggest impediment to all-source analysis, and to a greater likelihood of connecting the dots, is resistance to sharing." That, and a resistance from civil libertarians and conservatives who believe such an all-seeing computer system threatens fundamental constitutional rights by creating a mechanism for the government to spy on every American. "It really, really bothers me that none of us have any privacy anymore," said Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum, who finds herself on the same side of the issue as the American Civil Liberties Union. "Privacy is a thing of the past, and there is no way to slow it down or stop it," she added. But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says he supports the idea of an information-sharing network, pointing out that 15 different intelligence agencies cannot currently communicate with one another. "The 9/11 Commission and President Bush have proposed the creation of a new network to break down those barriers, which currently prevent the sharing of critical intelligence and allow all the intelligence agencies to communicate on the same, secure system," he said. "The new network will provide the intelligence agencies with a total picture of the intelligence, not just a small, incomplete snap shot." The network would include data from federal departments and agencies, state and tribal governments, local authorities and "relevant private sector entities, including owners and operators of critical infrastructure." Critics worry about phrases like "all available sources," which could mean government investigators would have one-stop shopping for everything from a person's credit reports to insurance claims. In other words, it could do everything promised by the controversial MATRIX, the Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, and maybe even more since it would mandate that federal agencies "coordinate, communicate and collaborate." Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt signed the state up for MATRIX, but he never told lawmakers or the public exactly what MATRIX was, or of its potential to monitor the lives of ordinary citizens. Walker later suspended the state's participation, saying she was not satisfied with safeguards to ensure that private information was not abused. Utah was one of 13 states to sign onto the program, funded by a grant from the Department of Homeland Security through a Florida foundation run by Doug Bodrero, the former director of the Utah Department of Public Safety. Eight states have since dropped out, some citing financial concerns, others worries over potential abuses of the database that is estimated at 20 billion records. MATRIX is a cousin to the Total Information Awareness, a federal database that Congress unplugged after questions arose about its effectiveness and intrusive nature. With lawmakers debating long and hard about other national security issues, primarily the implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the new national information-sharing network has generated little comment. The American Civil Liberties Union's Washington, D.C., was unaware of any MATRIX connection in the Intelligence Act and referred calls to its New York office, which has taken the lead in opposing MATRIX. Officials in the New York office were not available for comment Tuesday. The bill now before Congress contains a complex series of rules for how the information can be used and who can use it, and it would create an electronic audit trail ? all with the idea of reducing the potential the data could be abused. And Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold, both Democrats, recently attached language to a Senate appropriations bill that would require all federal agencies using "data-mining" technologies to inform Congress of those efforts (the rider must still be approved by the House). "Ironically, at the same time that the administration has been making it harder and harder for the public to learn what government agencies are up to, the government and its private sector partners have been quietly building more and more databases to learn and store more information about the American people," Leahy said. "The American people deserve to know what kind of information is gathered about them and how federal agencies intend to store and use it." Those assurances are of little comfort to privacy advocates like Ruzicka, who believe the government is already using computer data to monitor its citizens. "They are already doing it," she said. "It should never happen, but it is."
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