ACLU Questions Michigan State Police Involvement in Data Surveillance Program

February 17, 2004

DETROIT— Following a news report released yesterday in which the Michigan State Police admit that it has released information to a multistate police database, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan today submitted a third “Freedom of Information Act” request about Michigan’s participation in the new “MATRIX” surveillance system. This admission comes on the heels of the state denying involvement in the program in response to two previous FOIA requests.

“The state has been less than honest in their responses to our FOIA requests,” said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director.  “Clearly, they have already released personal information and are about to release more.  Why is it that they are denying the state’s involvement in their responses?”

The goal of the requests was to find out what information sources the MATRIX system is drawing on as well as who has access to the database and how the information is being used .  A letter from Dave Fedewa, Assistant FOIA Coordinator for the Department of State Police, denied all ten items of the request including information regarding usage of the MATRIX and procedures used to protect the privacy of the individuals whose data is accessed.  In its conclusion, the letter states, “Finally, please be informed that the MSP currently is not a user of MATRIX.”

“Even the Michigan Secretary of State has raised the privacy issue of a program such as MATRIX and has warned the MSP that it may be in violation of the 1997 Michigan Driver Privacy Protection Act,” added Moss. 

According to Congressional testimony and news reports, the MATRIX (which stands for “Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange”) creates dossiers about individuals from government databases and private-sector information companies that compile files on Americans’ activities for profit.  It then makes those dossiers available for search by federal and state law enforcement officers.  In addition, MATRIX computer programs comb through the millions of files in a search for “anomalies” that may be indicative of terrorist or other criminal activity. 

While company officials have refused to disclose details of the program, according to news reports the kind of information to be searched includes credit histories, driver’s license photographs, marriage and divorce records, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, and the names and addresses of family members, neighbors and business associates.

Raising even more issues, the Matrix is operated by a private company, Seisint Inc. of Boca Raton, Florida.  Ironically, the company’s founder was forced to resign after buried information about his own past came to light: according to Florida police, he was formerly a drug smuggler who had piloted multiple planeloads of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S.

Two other states, Georgia and Texas, have already withdrawn their involvement because of legal and financial concerns.  According to a letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety, “The fiscal responsibility in participating in this endeavor cannot be reconciled in view of existing budget constraints and the potential recurring out year cost of over $140,000 per month. Further, there are other legal, ethical and financial considerations in providing non-public data sets at our expense to a private company to sell back to us.”

“We’re concerned that the state may be in violation of more than one law and we will be looking toward litigation, if necessary, to protect the privacy of Michigan citizens,” Moss stated.

Click Here for copies of the ACLU’s state and federal FOIA requests as well as a fact sheet about the Matrix. 

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