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Privacy experts cheered last month when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that it was ending a controversial data-mining project that compiled reams of personal information on state residents and dumped it into a statewide database.
Turns out the project -- dubbed MATRIX, for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange -- wasn't as dead as it seemed. The FDLE's real plan: Expand MATRIX by adding credit-bureau and insurance information on millions of Floridians, most of whom have never committed a crime -- and place all that information in the hands of a private vendor trafficking in personal information.
For many, the response might be a yawning "So what?" People with no criminal record might think they have nothing to worry about. But these growing databases pose a serious threat to privacy.
"What (FDLE's) building is the skeleton of a system to track every single American," says Chris Calabrese, counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union's Liberty and Technology Project. Imagine every chat-room conversation, every late bill payment, every copy of a store surveillance camera tape -- do you really want that information preserved forever, tagged to your name and constantly examined for markers that you might be thinking about breaking the law?
And what do you do if this information is wrong? Credit bureau reports, for example, are notoriously inaccurate. Last year, several state Public Interest Research Groups conducted a massive survey of credit data, and found inaccuracies in 79 percent of the personal reports checked. More than half had some item of personal identification inc orrect -- name, address, Social Security number, etc.
That doesn't seem to faze the proponents of data collection, who continue to preach the rhetoric of databases as high-tech lifesaving measures. The reality is something different.
From its inception, MATRIX was intended to be an electronic profiling tool -- one that looked at data markers associated with serious crimes like terrorism and then searched across millions of records, culling those that fit the flagged characteristics. That analytical function rarely panned out. MATRIX helped police catch criminals, but only by pointing them to information that likely would be available from other sources. And FDLE records show that MATRIX was most often used to solve property crimes -- fraud, theft and burglary. Less than 3 percent of the investigations run through MATRIX had anything to do with terrorism.
Yet the drive to collect information never seems to fade. Even though Florida has dropped out of the multi-state system, it would be easy for the state to quietly form another multi-state or even national framework and begin sharing personal data again.
Law-enforcement agencies aren't the only ones who could potentially misuse this sensitive information. When MATRIX was created, Florida hired Seisent -- an offshoot of database giant DBT, later sold to Lexis-Nexis, another big data-compiling firm -- to run the program. Presumably, Seisent is a front-runner to collect the financial information as well. As a result, Seisent would be able to access information that would otherwise be protected by laws that safeguard consumer privacy. Who's going to track what use the company makes of that data?
FDLE should drop its plans to bypass safety laws and mine personal financial information. The projected payoff isn't worth the loss of millions of Floridians' privacy -- even if they never realize they've been violated.