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With Matrix Terminated, Goal Of Law-Enforcement Data Sharing Remains Unresolved

Myriad other projects are addressing the problem, and Matrix faced privacy and cost concerns.

Larry Greenemeier

April 21, 2005

6 Min Read

The federal government's recent announcement that it won't continue funding the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, or Matrix, closes a chapter on a controversial law-enforcement data-sharing pilot project created in the wake of 9/11. Three years and $12 million later, just two states will continue using the technology, as other projects compete to meet the goal of getting better data sharing across state lines.

The project's underlying technology is a desktop search application used to access a database populated by law enforcement in participating states, a system known as the Factual Analysis Criminal Threat Solution, or Facts. The system remains available for state law-enforcement agencies with money to pay for it, and two Matrix participants, Florida and Ohio, this week signed contracts to continue using the technology, which is owned by LexisNexis, an information-services company owned by Reed Elsevier Group plc.

Ohio has signed a one-year contract with LexisNexis to continue using Facts and paying for it using federal homeland security grant money. "The [Matrix] program combined existing information out there in public databases to make it simple for law enforcement to search during an investigation," says a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro, adding that the state queried the system about 61,000 times over the life of the project. "It was a much quicker way to get the information because it narrowed searches more quickly than traditional investigative methods. And it was information that the public itself had access to."

Florida likewise has entered into a one-year agreement with LexisNexis to continue using Facts and will pay for the technology using federal grant money. "Law-enforcement data sharing isn't new; we just found a more effective and efficient way to do it," says Mark Zadra, chief of investigations for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's office of statewide intelligence.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement still holds out hope that states will standardize on a single data-sharing technology. The department's contract with LexisNexis includes a clause that will let it move to a competing technology if that technology receives the federal government's blessing or attracts interest from other states.

Facts is essentially a database and search engine designed to more quickly access public information on criminals--information already available to law enforcement and the general public, such as criminal histories and courthouse records. The only information not available to the public to which Facts users have access are driver's license photos.

But that didn't stop privacy concerns, at least in part, from scuttling this latest attempt to increase cross-jurisdictional cooperation.

Seisint, acquired by LexisNexis in September, originally created the Matrix project's core Facts technology with help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which at the time was working with federal law enforcement investigating 9/11 terrorist activity in Florida.

The Matrix project launched in January 2002 with $8 million from the Homeland Security Department and $4 million from the Justice Department. Several states were invited to participate, and others expressed interest in the project. Under the original model for Matrix, law enforcement from each participating state was asked to transfer its data to a database hosted at a Seisint facility in Florida. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement managed the servers and database independent of Seisint. Between July 2003 and April 2005, law enforcement from states participating in Matrix made 1.87 million queries through Facts.

But Matrix quickly came under fire because of concerns over the nature of the data being shared, the security of this data, and the cost of participating in the project. The project's organizers pointed out that Facts contained the same information available to law enforcement through traditional distributed sources, including courthouses, motor vehicle departments, and fellow law enforcement agencies. The value of the technology, they said, was the ability to quickly query databases across the country from a single screen.

The Facts database never included fingerprint, credit-card, or travel record data, Zadra says, despite repeated claims that it did. Each Facts user is required to undergo a background check before being given access to the system.

Matrix hasn't been helped by its affiliation with LexisNexis, which this month reported a security breach that may have compromised the Social Security or driver's license numbers of 310,000 people in the company's database. Zadra says he, too, was concerned about LexisNexis' problems but that the security breach couldn't affect any data in Facts, which is managed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and accessed via a secure network.

Of the 16 states that participated or expressed interest in Matrix initially, only four--Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania--remained in the Matrix project. Charter Matrix participants Georgia and Utah left the project in February 2004, joining Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina. New York and Wisconsin left the following month. California and Texas were invited but never participated.

When Georgia pulled out of the program because of concerns over sending data out of state, Seisint and Florida began to develop a distributed model for Matrix in which each state could host its own data while still sharing it over a secure network. Such servers were being implemented in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania when the project ended, Zadra says.

There were many reasons Matrix failed to take hold, says Jeff Vining, a Gartner analyst who covers homeland security and law enforcement. In addition to its difficulty reconciling the differences in privacy laws from state to state, Matrix had a lot of competition from federal and regional data-sharing initiatives, including the federally funded Regional Information Sharing System, the Homeland Security Information Network, the Joint Regional Information Exchange System, and the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces. "Matrix is an idea that is redundant now," Vining says.

It's likely that Matrix also ran into trouble during new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's review of the department, when he saw just how many states had dropped out, Vining says. Despite all of these problems, Vining acknowledges that Matrix was an important first step taken shortly after 9/11 by law enforcement directly involved in investigating the attacks.

Connecticut hasn't decided whether it will continue to use Facts, citing cost as a primary concern. If the state decides not to use Facts, the technology will be missed, a Connecticut State Police spokesman says. "It was more efficient to use the Matrix search when doing criminal investigations because it expanded our capabilities," he says. "By going through Matrix, we could explore data from all member's data sources, which afforded us one-stop shopping."

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