Dragnet Database and New Laws Erode Civil Liberties, Lawyers Say

Law enforcement officials are moving forward with a controversial antiterrorism database on the state level as the federal government is expanding the amount of information collected and retained about private citizens.

This week, authorities disclosed that the state of Wisconsin had joined the Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, known by the science-fiction film acronym “the Matrix,” enabling officials there to log on and conduct digital dragnets for information about any person, including tdriver’s license picture, home address, hunting and firearms licenses, domain-name registrations, professional licenses and even the names of friends and relatives.

Thus far, seven states are participating in the Matrix, including Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and now Wisconsin.

Caught in the Matrix

The Matrix is operated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and is based on technology from a Boca Raton, Florida-based firm, Seisint, which collects and aggregates data from phone directories, financial filings with the state, criminal and civil court records, voter-registration rolls, property identification numbers and the like.

First Amendment lawyers are concerned about the possible abuses such technology could enable. “Although the Matrix program has seemingly innocuous and laudable goals of improving information sharing between public agencies, the context in which it arises is troubling,” David Reymann, a litigator with the Salt Lake City office of Parr, Waddoups, Brown, Gee & Loveless, told TechNewsWorld. “The Matrix database is primarily designed to be an antiterrorist tool, yet it compiles detailed information on every resident in participating states, not just criminals or individuals suspected of terrorist activity.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also has spoken out against the Matrix and the potential threat of invasion of privacy.

But some in the computing industry are too intimidated to even talk about the Matrix on the record.

“If it’s about policy, they don’t want to comment about it,” said a spokesperson for Sun Microsystems in a brief telephone chat with TechNewsWorld.

The state database effort comes as the federal government also is stepping up its surveillance of the financial dealings of ordinary citizens.

On December 13, 2003, with almost no publicity or public scrutiny, President Bush signed into law the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2004. Hidden in the statute is a redefinition of the term “financial institution” to include not just banks and brokers, but also car dealers, casinos, hotels, travel agencies, real estate agents, insurance agents, lawyers, even news dealers and the U.S. Postal Service. The law turns those service providers and professionals into government informants.

No Subpoenas Necessary

Without a subpoena, the government can learn what you paid for your house, what news magazines you purchase and even where you’ve traveled on business or pleasure lately.

The federal government can also, experts say, open your mail without leave of a court of law, on the mere suspicion that a terrorist action has been committed or is planned.

Other federal efforts to gather intelligence domestically include:

  • Army intelligence agents apparently targeting activities at the law school at the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Naval intelligence tapping into the U.S. Customs Service’s database on maritime trade.
  • The Pentagon establishing a Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) office with about 400 military and civilian employees.

Last August, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz signed a directive authorizing CIFA to keep a domestic “law-enforcement database that includes information related to potential terrorist threats directed against the Department of Defense.”

The White House has not been handed everything it has requested on the domestic intelligence front, however. Last year, Congress refused to give the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the power to examine all of the private personal and business records of U.S. citizens.

Patriot Act and Civil Liberties

The Patriot Act — passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks by Muslim fundamentalists on September 11, 2001 — has provided the power to search such records if government agents believe there is a terrorist threat posed by a particular individual.

Civil liberties lawyers reckon that more than 200 years of free speech and privacy protection in the United States may be at risk, due to the War on Terror and these technological and political developments in Washington, D.C., and on the state level.

“Like the Patriot Act, the Matrix program represents a dangerous reversal of the probable cause standard and the presumption of innocence for ordinary citizens,” Reymann told TechNewsWorld. “In addition, even if the Matrix begins in a limited fashion, it creates an infrastructure for much more expansive data sharing, creating the potential for databases with more intrusive information to be easily incorporated in the future.”

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