Confidential information shared by the state of Utah with the MATRIX super-computer database is supposed to be accessible only to law enforcement officers in their official fight against crime and terrorism.
But one Utah resident believes that at least one of the supposedly secret Utah databases — motor vehicle records — has apparently been provided to American Express, which is using it to market American Express Gold cards.
"It is no coincidence that I started receiving these American Express letters in December" at the same time the state started downloading its motor vehicle records into MATRIX, said Paul Adams, a West Valley businessman and owner of a private security company. "I have seen enough weird things in my life to know when there is smoke, there is fire."
The state Department of Public Safety is concerned enough about Adams' allegation that DPS officials said Friday they would launch a criminal investigation to determine how Adams' private records ended up in the hands of marketers.
MATRIX officials say the allegations are groundless. "It is highly, highly unlikely," said Bob Cummings with the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, the nonprofit entity that handles the financial aspects of MATRIX. "I cannot believe and do not believe that data would be supplied to any private entity, given the security controls in place."
But if not MATRIX, then how? Verdi White II, Utah's head of homeland security, said the problem could lie in any number of agencies, such as insurance companies, which have legal access to the confidential database and are supposed to maintain that confidentiality. Investigators will try to determine if someone with legal access illegally distributed confidential information.
And that raises questions as to just how secure Utahns' private information really is.
Adams makes a convincing, albeit circumstantial, case that the motor vehicle database has been compromised.
Just before Christmas, Adams began receiving mail solicitations from American Express addressed to the Adams Family Trust at his West Valley post office box. But the Adams Family Trust is listed on no legal or financial document anywhere except for one: The title and registration of his Lincoln Mark VIII automobile, Adams said.
"The family trust is something between me and my sons for when I am gone," Adams said. "There has never been a bank account, never any court document, never a property transaction, never anything in the public record with that name on it."
That was until June 2002 when Adams first registered the car at Motor Vehicles, a division of the Utah Tax Commission. There was no correspondence addressed to the family trust of any kind until December 2003 when the American Express solicitations first began arriving.
Jodi Monaco, spokeswoman for the Tax Commission, insisted vehicle registration information remains confidential, although the Utah Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies have access to it.
"We are in full compliance with the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act," she said. "We don't share with anyone not authorized."
Public Safety Commissioner Robert Flowers did not return Deseret Morning News calls, but a public information officer said it was doubtful that American Express could have gotten its hands on confidential information intended only for law enforcement. And there are state and federal privacy laws to ensure that it does not happen, she added.
"If there has been a violation of (state or federal privacy) law, we need to know," said DPS spokeswoman Tammy Palmer. "If what he (Adams) says is true, this absolutely has to be tracked down."
And if the evidence leads to MATRIX? "It will be shut down. Permanently," she said.
Adams thinks the smoking gun could be found at Seisint Inc., a Boca Raton, Fla., company, that, according to its Internet site, "provides information products that allow organizations to quickly and easily
extract valuable knowledge from huge amounts of data."
The company claims to have tens of billions of data records on file and the technology to link them together for a variety of public and private needs.
The Florida Department of Public Safety has contracted with Seisint to coordinate MATRIX, a multi-state law enforcement database instigated by the Department of Homeland Security that sifts public and confidential databases to help thwart crime.
Utah was among the pilot states participating in the program, but on Thursday, Gov. Olene Walker pulled the plug on the state's involvement until privacy concerns can be addressed.
The state began downloading its confidential data files — criminal histories, title and vehicle registrations, driver's license records and Department of Corrections data — in December, or about the same time Adams began receiving solicitations from American Express.
Cummings said there is no way that confidential databases intended only for law enforcement somehow got mixed up with commercial databases purchased by companies such as American Express. All of the confidential information is housed in a "controlled environment," he said, and only users involved in active criminal investigations have access.
Susan Korchak, an American Express spokeswoman, said the company has no record of working with Seisint, nor does it use confidential databases.
"We get information from a number of different sources, including credit bureaus, so that our marketing offers are as effective as possible," she said.
So was the mid-December timing of Adams' gold card offers and the state's participation in MATRIX just a coincidence? "It would not be possible to receive an offer within a week of (American Express) receiving a database," she said.
Adams said Flowers told him during a Friday conversation the state would subpoena American Express records to determine how it got the restricted information.
Seisint came under increased scrutiny last August when its founder, Hank Asher, was pressured to resign from the board of directors. Florida authorities questioned his criminal background during contract negotiations with the company, according to reports in the St. Petersburg Times, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and Associated Press in Florida.
In 1987, Asher was granted immunity from prosecution and named an unindicted conspirator in a drug smuggling case involving the importation of $150 million in cocaine. The multi-millionaire has admitted publicly that he smuggled drugs in 1981 and 1982, according to media accounts.
In 1992, Asher founded DataBase Technologies, which later merged with ChoicePoint, the company hired by Florida to "scrub" voter rolls of convicted felons not entitled to vote. Florida subsequently removed 8,000 names identified by the company from voter rolls, only to find out later the 8,000 names were actually eligible voters.
In 1999, the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration canceled contracts with DBT Online, a high-tech company Asher founded, because of Asher's criminal history. Asher and Seisint have been accused of stealing DBT technology that the Florida Department of Public Safety is attempting to purchase from Seisint, the company hired to manage and build the MATRIX database for Homeland Security and state law enforcement in 14 states participating in the pilot program (six states have since dropped out, citing financial and privacy concerns).
Ironically, ChoicePoint refused to bid on the MATRIX project, citing the lack of privacy safeguards, Associated Press reported.
MATRIX has been criticized by conservative groups and the American Civil Liberties Union for its potential to violate individual privacy. And critics say it is an end run around federal laws first implemented in the 1970s that prohibit the federal government from domestic spying activities, including collecting dossiers on law-abiding citizens. The entities involved in MATRIX are state governments and private entities and therefore may not be subject to the 1974 Privacy Act.
When the Department of Defense proposed a database on U.S. citizens last year, called Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA), public reaction was overwhelmingly negative and Congress prohibited funding for TIA.
That's when the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security came up with MATRIX, which stands for Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, which combines public and confidential databases into a new crime-fighting tool.
The database is managed and maintained by Seisint, and the financial aspects are handled by the nonprofit Institute for Intergovernmental Research. White sat on the MATRIX board of directors until Walker suspended the state's involvement.
Some legislators and watch-dog groups are upset that former Gov. Mike Leavitt signed up the state's residents for the pilot program without ever informing them. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are trying to find out more about MATRIX and whether the state should ever have been involved.
"Many of us are deeply concerned about privacy, for privacy is part of our liberty," said Senate Minority Whip Ron Allen, D-Stansbury Park. "We'll work at every turn to see that Utahns' privacy is not violated."
Privacy concerns led lawmakers several years ago to classify motor vehicle records as "private."
Speaker of the House Marty Stephens, who was appointed to the president's Homeland Security Task Force in October, said he is worried about reports that Utahns' privacy might have been compromised, but he reiterated his assertion he knows "very little to nothing about MATRIX." He said it has never been discussed at the Homeland Security meetings he has attended.
On Friday, Walker appointed an oversight committee to review privacy issues and address public concerns. Included on the committee are Sens. Mike Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake; Rep. John Dougall, R-American Fork; her chief of staff Gary Doxey; the state's chief information officer Val Oveson; and Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy to Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. She also plans to appoint a citizen representative.
MATRIX will remain unplugged until Walker's concerns are addressed, she promised.
The missing voice in all of this, of course, is Mike Leavitt, who signed the state up in the MATRIX program to begin with. Numerous attempts to contact him over the past few days have failed, with phone messages going unanswered and queries going without response. Leavitt was finally contacted at the Moscow-Utah Youth Games opening ceremonies Friday night — he flew in for the festivities — but he refused comment on MATRIX.
"I have made a commitment not to comment on things going on under Gov. Walker," he said. "She doesn't need me interfering in her administration. . . . I'm not going to comment on that. I'm simply not going to do it."
Contributing: Alan Edwards