A committee looking into Utah's participation in MATRIX was unanimous: The state should stay out of the controversial supercomputer database until adequate oversight has been established.

The problem was defining what "adequate oversight" means.

Does it mean a citizens committee or a legislative committee or some combination of the two? Or could "elected officials" ensure safeguards are in place to protect citizen privacy and prevent abuse of the data by overzealous police?

"Elected officials were involved before, i.e., the governor," noted Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, referring to former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who signed Utah up for the data-sharing program without explaining the program to lawmakers or the public.

Members of the Multi-State Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX) Review Committee decided the Legislature will determine "adequate oversight." And it will be decided in public hearings.

That means MATRIX is probably dead in Utah until lawmakers reconvene in January 2005. Gov. Olene Walker, who suspended the state's involvement two months ago after being blind-sided with news of the state's participation, could always reject the committee's findings and order MATRIX restored. Or she could place the issue on a legislative special session.

During her monthly news conference on KUED, which had started taping before the committee hearing concluded, Walker said that there should be ways for law enforcement to share and analyze information to better combat terrorism and other crime. However, the amount of personal information that is public — most of the data that MATRIX utilized was already public through Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) requests to different government agencies — should also be reconsidered.

"The bigger question needs to be how we get law enforcement the information they need to protect the people while also protecting privacy rights," she said. "We need to look at this and other programs, as well as the GRAMA laws. . . . There are certain areas of individual information that we should have the right to protect."

It was clear the committee had little appetite for MATRIX in its current form. There were concerns that lawmakers and Walker had not been briefed about the state's involvement, about whether the potential benefits of quick access to information on citizens outweighed potential abuses of privacy rights, about how Utah's confidential information might be used by other states and the absence of any independent oversight of those using the information.

In fact, the lack of independent oversight was an overriding concern of all members of the committee.

Waddoups said MATRIX may indeed be a valuable tool to help law enforcement thwart crime and terrorism, but sometimes issues rise to the level where public concern outweighs the advantages.

"Just the name alone may doom this project in our state," he said, a reference to the fact the database shares its name with a popular sci-fi movie where supercomputers rule the planet.

Capt. Mitch McKee and the Utah Department of Public Safety pleaded with the committee not to "punish the victims of crime and victims of terrorism" by taking away the MATRIX tool, which allows police to sift through billions of pieces of information in minutes.

"Don't buy into the inaccuracies of what the media has spread and continues to spread," he said.

If punishments are to be meted out by the committee, McKee said they should be directed at those individuals who did not properly explain the program to lawmakers. But unplugging the state would be rewarding criminals and terrorists by taking away an effective tool of law enforcement, he said.

McKee said MATRIX emerged in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, climate when terrorism investigators were being asked why they did not "connect the dots" to identify the terrorists before they killed thousands in New York City and Washington, D.C. And MATRIX — a combination of confidential, public and corporate databases — became a tool to process information in a matter of minutes that would otherwise take days or weeks.

It was funded by federal grants from the Department of Homeland Security and was coordinated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in partnership with a private technology firm.

Leavitt, apparently through his role in the National Governor's Association, was a champion of MATRIX and encouraged other governors to join. Originally, 13 states, including Utah, were involved in the pilot program. Only four of the original participants remain in the program, most withdrawing because of the roughly $2 million annual price tag or privacy concerns or both.

There are also concerns MATRIX is an "end run" around federal laws that prohibit domestic spying — laws that emerged in the early 1970s in the wake of revelations the government had been spying on anti-war activists, civil rights leaders and others with unpopular views. Two years ago, Congress killed a supercomputer database proposed for the Department of Defense because of concerns it could be used to revive domestic spying.

Fueling concerns that MATRIX is means for the feds to get around congressional prohibitions is the fact the program so far has been funded entirely with federal grants and because the federal government was allotted 500 "licenses" to access the MATRIX database. That's more than any single state involved in the program (McKee said Utah has been given 20 to 30 licenses).

MATRIX has drawn consternation from conservative groups and civil libertarians who are concerned about the potential for law enforcement to use the information to spy on law-abiding citizens, create dossiers on citizens or groups based on political views rather than criminal behavior, and so-called data mining — using the wealth of information to create lists of people who fit certain profiles, even though no crime was committed.

Elizabeth Dunning, a citizen member on the committee, pointed out that MATRIX documents boast about its data mining potential. In one test case, the program created a list of 120,000 potential terrorists. On that list were 20 terrorists or people already under investigation by the FBI.

That means 119,980 people are on a list as potential terrorists but who have committed no crime.

"It," Dunning said, "is profiling on steroids."


Contributing: Josh Loftin

E-mail: spang@desnews.com