Database firm listed 120 000 'likely terrorists'

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The company that runs the multi-state Matrix law enforcement database gave the US government a list of 120 000 people who scored high on a computer profile it said was designed to identify likely terrorists, a civil liberties group said yesterday.

The Florida company that created the list, Seisint, said in government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union that the "High Terrorism Factor" list had led to scores of arrests.

Seisint created the list shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks, apparently acting on its own, the ACLU said.

The ACLU has asked for a government investigation to determine who had access to the list of 120 000 people and how the information was used. It called the data-mining program a chilling invasion of privacy that allows police to investigate millions of law-abiding citizens without their knowledge.

"People on that list ought to be concerned," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's privacy and technology program. "Just being associated with a terrorist list is going to make people's lives miserable."

Law enforcement officials involved with the program have said the terrorist quotient was abandoned when Matrix was developed. But the ACLU said the documents it received through freedom of information requests contained nothing to indicate that, and that the terrorist profiling feature was "a sort of central selling point of the program".

Seisint did not immediately return repeated calls for comment. The privately held company in Boca Raton, Florida, creates "data mining" products that rapidly analyse billions of computerised records to extract useful information.

Based on profiles of the actual 11 September hijackers, the terrorism quotient program examined criteria such as age, gender, ethnicity, driving records, pilot licensing records, credit history and proximity to addresses and phone numbers previously linked to criminal activity, the ACLU said.

Seisint gave the list of the highest scorers to federal authorities, and according to documents obtained by the ACLU, claimed that the technology led to scores of arrests.

Credit histories and raw data

Last year Seisint won a contract to run the Multi-state Anti-Terrorist Information Exchange, a pilot program known as Matrix that lets law enforcement agencies share information and rapidly sort through billions of computerised records to track criminals.

In addition to public documents such as criminal records and motor vehicle records, Matrix includes records such as credit histories and raw data from police investigators -- which the ACLU said could contain errors that lead to false accusations.

"It is a basic principle of American law, American policy that you do not investigate people unless you have some reason to do so, some reasonable suspicion," Steinhardt said.

Matrix has already been controversial. It was launched in 2002 with 13 states that included more than half of the US population, but many have dropped out because of cost and privacy concerns. Only five states still participate -- Florida, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio -- which contain about 19% of the US population.

The Department of Homeland Security gave the program $8 million last year. One document released by the ACLU shows that the funding agreement gave DHS "managerial oversight and control" of the program.

The ACLU, which wants Congress to cut DHS funding for the Matrix program, said it was "substantially similar" to the ill-fated Total Information Awareness program created by the Pentagon to create a global data-mining program to search computer records on individuals and build profiles.

News reports about the program prompted fear that America was becoming a police state, and Congress declined to fund it.

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