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Florida Creates “the Matrix”, a Big Brother-Like Surveillance System with Help From Choicepoint-Related Firm

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Remember the Florida election of 2000 when a private database company scrubbed thousands of eligible voters from the rolls? Well now one of the co-founders of Database Technologies is back in the headlines — he’s working with law enforcement agents in Florida to create what may soon expand into a national surveillance system. We talk with privacy expert Wayne Madsen, investigative reporter Greg Palast and a top intelligence official from the state of Florida. [Includes transcript]

Click here to read to full transcript

A Florida law enforcement data-sharing network is about to go national. In the name of counterterrorism, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are pouring millions of dollars into the system to expand it to local law enforcement agencies across the nation. It’s called Matrix, which stands for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. According to the Washington Post, the computer network accesses information that has always been available to investigators but brings it together and enables police to access it with extraordinary speed. Civil liberties and privacy groups say the Matrix system dramatically increases the ability of local police to snoop on individuals.

The Florida company that built the database was founded by the man behind ChoicePoint and Database Technologies. The companies administered the contract that stripped thousands of African Americans from the Florida voter roles before the 2000 election.

Although narrower in scope than John Poindexter’s controversial Terrorist Global Information Awareness program, Matrix may serve a similar purpose because it provides unprecedented access to US residents regardless of their criminal background. And states are eager to participate in the new program. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced plans to launch a pilot program in state law enforcement data-sharing among Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.


JUAN GONZALES: and good day to all of our listeners and viewers. Florida law enforcement data sharing network is about to go national. In the name of counter terrorism the departments of justice and homeland security are pouring millions of dollars into the system to expand it to local law enforcement agencies across the nation. It’s called matrix, which stands for multistate antiterrorism information exchange.

According to the “Washington Post”, the computer network access information that has always been available to investigators but brings it together and enables police to access it with extraordinary speed. Civil liberties and privacy groups say the matrix system dramatically increases the ability of local police to snoop on individuals.

AMY GOODMAN: What the “Washington Post” didn’t say is who the individuals are behind the Florida company that built the database founded by a man behind choice point and database technologies. Remember those companies, the companies that administered the contract that scrubbed the voter roles of the 2000 elections stripping many thousands of African Americans of their rights to vote.

Although NARROW IN SCOPE and John Poindexter controversial global information terrorist program, matrix may serve a similar purpose because it provides unprecedented access to U.S. residents regardless of whether or not they have a criminal record.

And states are eager to participate in the new program. On Tuesday the department of homeland security announced plans to launch a pilot program in state law enforcement data sharing among Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the phone by Greg Palast, who is author of the Best Democracy Money Can Buy and a Bbc investigative reporter and Wayne Madsen who is senior fellow at the electronic information privacy center. That is EIPC.

Wayne, let’s begin with you.

This matrix system, how the “Washington Post” put it, organizers say the system dubbed matrix enables investigators find pattern and links among people and links faster than ever before combining police records with commercially available collections of personal information about most American adults. It would let authorities, for instance, instantly find the name and address of every brown haired owner of a red Ford pickup truck in a 20 mile radius of a suspicious event.

Wayne, can you tell us about this?

WAYNE MADSEN: Well, this system as it’s described would be the mother of all fishing nets when we talk about people that are going on fishing expeditions. This is exactly what people have complained about where the technology was heading.

And the mere fact that we know there’s been past abuses of criminal information databases by law enforcement, for example, the national crime information center, many investigations by the general accounting office found out that cops were using this system to help their buddies who were private investigators, help girlfriends track down different people and find out various spouses, who were they cheating with. So that the abuses have been great with these types of systems and we hear about all the technology but we don’t hear anything about any sort of legislation to curb abuses to put the brakes on how this type of information will be used.

We just see this win fall of billions of dollars for homeland security it’s going into the pocket, every conartist that comes along with the system.

JUAN GONZALES: What about the argument of law enforcement officials that given the increasing dangers of terrorist attacks and the need for law enforcement to act with speed, that this is necessary in the environment that we’re living in these days.

WAYNE MADSEN: Well, one of the things  actually has been a system that has done this sort of information sharing between state, local and federal law enforcement agencies, it’s called the regional information sharing system or RISS net, that workers  you have to wonder how many systems do these people actually need. We have Poindexter at the Pentagon, with his system, the total information awareness.

The police already have a system, actually they have used the RISS net to warn police departments and cities about the antiwar demonstrators that were leaving by plane or bus or car to areas where there were antiwar demonstrations. So they have used this system. It’s just the question is how much  how many more of these systems do they need and what if somebody in congress or state legislature is going to say enough to enough.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve just been joined by Phil Ramer who is special agent in charge of Florida statewide intelligence at the department of law enforcement there. You’re quoting the “Washington Post” as saying that the possible abuses in the system are scary.

PHIL RAMER: That’s correct. What I was trying to be is realistic. When you look at the information, when you first call it up there’s never been an application that I’ve seen that will give you that much information at one time.

It can look scary, but the thanks are all the information in the system is public information that’s already available to law enforcement. Just not available in one place with one query in the way that it is in the system.

JUAN GONZALES: But isn’t this, Wayne, part of the concern that civil liberties groups have always had with these massive computer databases that, yes, they’re public records but put them all together and you get a frightening ability to be able to call up information on any particular individual in the system.

PHIL RAMER: Absolutely. This is something that Poindexter argued about when he was national security advisor under president Reagan, he tried to implement a new security classification called, unclassified but sensitive because he said if you put together a lot of unclassified information that was available publicly, it could become classified information.

So the intelligence agencies have always argued that this is a problem I would suggest that privacy advocates can use the same argument used by the C.I.A. and national security council when they said that this is an issue for them. That when you put together a lot of information from public sources, it goes to the next level and becomes much more sensitive and certainly what we see with matrix and these other systems that seems to be the case as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Phil Ramer of the Florida department of law enforcement, can you tell us how it works? How you’re going to use this?

PHIL RAMER: It’s very simple. What we have done is we’ve taken data that’s available from companies that you can go contract with now. A product called Accurant, there’s a Choice Point Lexis, Nexis where I can go to get information or go to Google and get lots of information about any particular individual.

What we have done is we’ve taken other public data that’s restricted in nature like driver’s license data, criminal history data and we’ve made it so you can search against both things at one time and what it does is give police the power to make one search and get all the information. For instance, if I’m looking for a person who committed a crime a number of years ago and I run their criminal history record what I will find now in the police system is first I’ll have to go to 50 different states to do the search.

Second, I’ll find their address that police knew about back when they were arrested which was ten years ago could be very old. By combining both systems I can find not only who the person is but I can also find their current address.

Just simply saves law enforcement and investigative analysts a tremendous amount of time in doing research. It’s information that would eventually get to anyhow that is the point that I  we would eventually have the information, just that this cuts down the time and to me no different than automating any system out there and making it a lot more user friendly and the information much more timely. In the days that we live in today, when things change so quickly usually we have to have this technology and use it in very smart way and very restrictive way.

You asked another question about How are we going to restrict it? Right now it’s restricted to only criminal investigations. People have to go through a training session that says they understand that, they have to sign an agreement that says they understand that. And then we audit the system. Just like any law enforcement system if we found someone abusing it we cut them off and even prosecuted people for that.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for stations to identify themselves. You are listening to Democracy Now! We’re talking about a new database and we’re talking with the people who will be using this database, on the line with us is Phil Ramer who is with the Florida department of law enforcement. Also Wayne Madsen, senior fellow at the electronic privacy information center. We’ll be back.

Also with Greg Palast , author of The best democracy money can buy we’ll talk about who created it the  who is behind this particular database. What is Seisint technology. Stay with us. [¶MUSIC BREAK¶]

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! The war and peace report. I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez. Coming up we’ll be going to Afghanistan to look at the country almost two years later, women are going back to try to have input in the Afghan constitution at the same time the rise of warlords, both Taliban and northern alliance warlords running the country.

But we’re talking about a new database called the matrix that will combine commercial as well as government databases on people and we’re talking to Wayne Madsen, senior fellow at the privacy information center, also joining us on the line is Phil Ramer, he is with the Florida department of law enforcement.

Also joining us, Greg Palast, who is the author The best democracy money can buy the company that has put forward this database actually given it to the state of Florida is Seisint, Inc, that is founded by Hank Asher who also founded database technologies in 1992 which later merged with Choice Point, which was sued by the NAACP and other organizations for the scrubbing of the voter roles in the 2000 election. Greg Palast, can you piece this all together for us?

GREG PALAST: Yeah, well, Amy, and Juan, it’s De Ja Vu all over again, I can’t believe it. My good friend Hank Asher is back with another alias this one is Seisint. For those who read my book or Michael Moore’s back, database technologies, his old company is the organization that came up with the list now up to 97,000 names of supposed felons in Florida who are scrubbed off the voter roles before the presidential election, it turns out almost every name on that list was an innocent person, they were named as felons by this company, by Hank Asher’s company, named at felons, they weren’t felons, they lost their vote and, surprise, most of them were African Americans. And that fixed our election.

Hank is back. Now Hank was thrown off the board of the company he founded by the U.S. Drug enforcement agency. Because of his connections to Bahamian drug dealers, they said if that guy is on we don’t want anything to do with him because of his connections. So here he is back with a different costume on. And up to the same tricks, first he is such a wonderful guy, of course first thing he’s doing is jumping on the September 11th war on terror bandwagon see if he can suck a few bucks out that have one, too. So the first thing he’s doing is giving away supposedly free software that’s exactly what his last company did with Database Technologies to strub the voter roles.

I’ll give you a little software, and what this does is it gives the law enforcement agencies their first free information heroin fix.

So they are now spending millions of dollars in staff time and equipment to run this software and then he’s got them.

There’s no where else to go. Note that there is no bidding for this. Of all the people on this planet, to put in charge of minding these very sensitive databases about who is a terrorist and who isn’t, I mean Hank Asher would be at the bottom of my list.

It’s true,he’s above Osama,maybe, but not far. You’ve got  this is one of the big problems, before you also had this company, I know we have obviously upstanding guy from the Florida department of Law Enforcement, let’s not forget that Hank Asher’s company was found to have completely misused the information from the Florida department of law enforcement(FDLE).

They took the tapes from   what is called the FDLE and they  which are by the way riddled with endless amount of errors and shouldn’t be used for such very sensitive things as this.

It’s riddled with errors, they use this information, misused it. And created a list of basically Democrats and black people to eliminate from the voter rolls.

You have to understand that Hank’s company, Hank Asher’s company, last company, knew exactly what they were doing, knew that the state of Florida Republican leadership, that’s Catherine Harris, Jeb Bush and before Harris was a republican secretary of state named Sandra Moretham.

And Database Technologies according to internal memos and by the NAACP suit they knew that their information was being misused by the politicians to knock off black voters off the voter rolls.

That is another reason why they’re using an outside contractor. You get a   politically amenable guy like Hank Asher who for a few bucks to line his pockets will do what the politicians want.

JUAN GONZALES: Well, I’d like to ask 

GREG PALAST: He’s not the kind of guy that I would trust that I would trust to make sure that not only is our data secure but the fact that the work is being done properly.

JUAN GONZALES: Greg, let me bring in here Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of statewide intelligence, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, your response, you know about the history of what happened with the Florida election and that individuals who were involved in that fiasco would now be in charge of this even larger national effort here?

PHIL RAMER: I don’t think Hank Asher was involved in that. I think he was out of that company when the elections issue came up in Florida if I’m not mistaken. I’m not exactly 

GREG PALAST: Unfortunately he was there until 1999 and the big fix was done in 1998 and 1999 before he left.

PHIL RAMER: You may be correct, I’m not sure. One of the things, but he does bring up a good point and I’ll  one of the things we tell people when you use this system, don’t do anything, don’t react to anything until you get the original document that supports it. Because this is a combination of public data for the people have inputted in computers, people can make mistakes in it.

And that’s one of the ground rule things that we tell people, if you find something in the system that you think is important you go back to the original data source before you take any action.

That we even had a little popup screen that reminds them of that when they sign on because it is a computation of other people’s data and there can be mistakes.

It’s used to help you find that original document. But that is a good point.

We are very concerned about that.

GREG PALAST: One thing I’m very concerned about, this is Greg again, is that we do know that once again we have a no bid contract, we have a company that’s wheedling in and will now have a lock on this national system, we know before that this is another trick that Asher used, he hired up a guy from law enforcement in Florida, George Bruder to run the database technologies operations, the scrub operation. And this is a very politically connected operation. I’m very concerned about that. Is this is the right guys this the right operation to be running something this sensitive.

No one is against law enforcement agencies sharing information. What we are doing here, though is getting outside contractors who therefore don’t have the same type of control that we have internally within government. To run the most sensitive databases internally within government, and in some cases, by the way, our information may be public, may not necessarily be accessible by law enforcement agencies properly. Don’t forget we have something that a law that was in effect before September 11th which is called the United States Constitution. Which said that you can’t have your records reviewed, certain of your records reviewed without a warrant from a court.

What we do know is that these databases are being created especially and specifically with private contractors so that the Department of Homeland Security can now dip in and do what’s called data mining which is effectively massive warrantless searches.

And I’m very concerned here because let’s not forget of all the terrorist attacks we’ve had, of 19 hijackers that attacked us on September 11th, 2001, not one was an American citizen.

And now we’re creating this massive database in which American citizens have gone from being the victims to being the suspects.

And we better pull back here and especially when we got politically connected guys who have misused their list, not taken care of private data, like Hank Asher and his crowd out of Boca Raton, I get very nervous , this is exactly the type of crew that we want to keep away from the databases. You can’t come up with a worse team.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on that note I want to thank you all very much for being with us. Greg Palast is the author of The best democracy money can buy where he details what Choice Point and Databases Technologies were involved with in the 2000 election.

We’ve also been joined by Phil Ramer, Phil Ramer is the head of intelligence special agent in charge of statewide intelligence in Florida. And Wayne Madsen of the electronic privacy information center known as EPIC, you are listening to Democracy Now!

As we move on now to another story. It is what is taking place now in Afghanistan. Very serious developments there in  almost two years since the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan.

The Taliban are back, the suppression of women is increasing, the drug market is flourishing. Today we’re going to go back, the Taliban stepping up attacks on U.S. and coalition forces as Afghan citizens continue to be victims of violence.

According to the Washington Post just over the border in the town of Chaman Pakistan, they’re having open meetings and handing out guns, money and motor bikes in exchange for planting land mines and bombs in Afghanistan. Warlords also continue to dominate much of Kandahar and the illegal drug trade is flourishing.

JUAN GONZALES: A report recently released by Human Rights Watch describes evidence of human rights violations by the U.S. supported government officials. In southeast Afghanistan observers note Army and police troops kidnapping Afghans and holding them for ransom in unofficial prisons.

Police forces break into households and rob families, they extort shop keepers, bus, truck and taxi drivers.

There have been arbitrary arrests of journalists and death threats to media editors by local officials, Army, police and intelligence agents. Political dissidents have also been subject to random detentions. In parts of Kabul city, the report states that women, girls and boys are abducted in broad daylight outside of their homes and on their way to school. Women and girls have been raped in their homes in the evening and during armed robberies.

The mounting instability comes as the country prepares for nationwide debate on the new constitution.

Representatives for the loya jirga or grand council are expected to convene in October for a constitutional convention.

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