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    St. Petersburg Times (Florida): Data mining project benefits investigators, scares privacy experts

    The St. Petersburg Times has a fascinating profile of a former drug smuggler named Hank Asher who is creating a massive data-mining project, gathering information on individuals. Asher is the man behind the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX), which ran from 2002 to 2005, financed by $12 million in federal grants. MATRIX was run by Florida and LexisNexis subsidiary Seisint. The data-mining program drew criticism because it included detailed files about innocent people, including credit histories and fingerprints. (A week before the announcement that MATRIX was shutting down, Seisint announced a security breach that compromised data on 310,000 individuals.)

    The personal information contained in MATRIX included names, past addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, credit data, driver’s license photos, marriage and divorce records, names and addresses of family members, and neighbors’ addresses and telephone numbers. Some of the data was incorrect, but people weren’t able to correct their records.

    In a 2003 article, law professor Anita Ramasastry compared MATRIX to notorious data-mining program: Total Information Awareness.

    As I discussed in an earlier column, TIA would have allowed the federal government to search and combine the vast amount of data that currently exists in government and commercial (that is, for profit) databases to create individual profiles of each of us.

    TIA was premised on a belief that compiling as much information as possible about as many people as possible in a large-scale database would help thwart terrorist activity. The idea — called “data mining” — was that government officials would search the database for information, or patterns of information, that might identify terrorists. […]

    Unfortunately, however, the same data mining ideas that inspired TIA have appeared again– this time, in the guise of the Matrix.

    The St. Petersburg Times reports:

    Now [Asher] is building a super computer and a database “a thousand times more powerful” than anything he has developed yet.

    It’s a project that worries privacy-rights advocates and other critics. They wonder if Asher’s real reason for donating some of his technology to government agencies is to get access to confidential data like firearms registries, tax information, even health records — information that could be a boon to businesses and an unprecedented intrusion into the lives of millions of Americans. […]

    Asher’s 1992 breakthrough was collating this wealth of data into an easily searchable product he dubbed AutoTrack. It proved a boon to police, who previously had to search many sources in doing background checks.

    Even Asher was surprised by AutoTrack. Searching on his own name, he got a long list of “associated” people, including “my ex-wife and her newest victim. I thought, ‘What have I done?’ ” […]

    Asher also started another company, TLO, and offered to develop, for free, a means of tracking children in state care. […]

    [In 2008, several Florida Department of Children and Families] employees met in Orlando with representatives of Asher’s company, [the Florida Department of Law Enforcement] and other agencies. The main topic for discussion: a three-page list of databases that the National Center for Missing Children said could be helpful in finding child predators.

    Among the databases: financial records, credit card data, even Blockbuster accounts.

    From a privacy standpoint, ”it’s a lot and it’s quite scary,” says Lee Tien, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

    [Bob Butterworth, former head of the Florida Department of Children and Families, who now works for Asher], who helped organize the meeting, insists it was only a “wish list” and that no one expected to get access to so much confidential data.

    One Response to “St. Petersburg Times (Florida): Data mining project benefits investigators, scares privacy experts”

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