The database project, created so states and local authorities can track would-be terrorists as well as criminal fugitives, is being built and housed in the offices of a private company but will be open to some federal law enforcers and perhaps even U.S. intelligence agencies.
Dubbed Matrix, the database has been in use for a year and a half in Florida, where police praise the crime-fighting tool as nimble and exhaustive. It cross-references the state's driving records and restricted police files with billions of pieces of public and private data, including credit and property records.
But privacy advocates, officials in two states, and a competing data vendor have branded Matrix as playing fast and loose with Americans' private details.
They complain that Matrix houses restricted police and government files on colossal databases that sit in the offices of Seisint Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., company founded by a millionaire whom police say flew planeloads of drugs into the country in the early 1980s.
"It's federally funded, it's guarded by state police, but it's on private property? That's very interesting," said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida law professor and expert in privacy issues. "If it's federally funded, the federal government obviously has a huge interest in it."
Matrix was initially intended to track terrorists, as was the Pentagon's Terrorism Information Awareness project, which sparked a congressional uproar and got watered down.
As a dozen more states pool their criminal and government files with Florida's, Matrix databases are expanding in size and power. Organizers hope to coax more states to join, touting its usefulness in everyday policing.
It gives investigators access to personal data, like boat registrations and property deeds, without the government possibly violating the 1974 Privacy Act by owning the files.
But California and Texas dropped out, citing, among other things, worries over housing sensitive files at Seisint. And a competing data vendor, ChoicePoint, decided not to bid on the project, saying it lacked adequate privacy safeguards.
Aspects of the project appear designed to steer around federal laws that bar the U.S. government from collecting routine data on Americans.
For instance, the project is billed as a tool for state and local police, but organizers are considering giving access to the Central Intelligence Agency, said Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's intelligence office.
In the 1970s, Congress barred the CIA from scanning files on average Americans, after the agency was cited for spying on civil rights leaders.
"The CIA doesn't have this now," Ramer said. "That's a major political issue we'll have to cross."
Florida officials have acknowledged that users of Matrix, which stands for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, can "monitor innocent citizens."
Ramer and others say, however, that unscrupulous spying will be prevented through Florida police oversight of Matrix users, along with audits and background checks on people with access to the database.
Criminal history files in the database are maintained by 15 Seisint employees, watched over by Florida state police, Ramer said.
Seisint declined to comment, referring a reporter to Seisint's public relations representative, Amber Zentis of Qorvis Communications, who asked that questions be E-mailed. The company did not answer those questions.